GREENWICH, N.Y. — It is Christmas time and many people have been busy “decking the halls” during this first week of December. The most recognizable of Christmas decorations is the Christmas Tree. From the towering twinkling tree in Rockefeller Center to Charlie Brown’s diminutive sapling the Christmas tree is a tradition many Americans recognize and practice each year. But how did this somewhat strange practice come to be? Read on to learn more.
To start, several ancient cultures practiced religious festivals around the time of the winter solstice that involved the use of evergreen boughs. Ancient Egyptians brought green palm rushes into homes to symbolize the triumph of life over death. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a feast that occurred on the winter solstice in honor of the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn. Part of the celebration included decorating homes with evergreen boughs. Similarly, Druids, the priests of the ancient Celtic peoples, used evergreen branches to decorate temples as it represented everlasting life to them.1
The practice of the Christmas tree appears to have begun in Germany and parts of eastern Europe. In the Medieval Christian church calendar December 24th was celebrated as “Adam and Eve Day.” As part of the celebrations “Paradise Plays” were performed telling the story of Adam & Eve found in the book of Genesis in the Bible. In these plays an evergreen tree was often decorated with apples and other items to represent the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eventually the decorated tree portion of the play made its way into peoples’ homes and were adorned with apples, pretzels, nuts, thread, and other materials.2 The first written record of a “Christmas tree” was in 1510 in Riga, Latvia.3
Other legends attribute Christmas tree to other figures from the history of Christianity. One holds that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, started the tradition when he was awed by the stars shining through an evergreen tree while on his way home one winter night.4 An earlier legend from the Catholic Church holds that in the 8th century the monk and missionary St. Boniface prevented a human sacrifice by chopping down an oak tree under which the sacrifice was to take place. When returning a year later a fir tree had grown in its place thus starting the practice of using evergreen trees.5
Regardless of whether these events are true the practice of having Christmas trees was common in parts of Europe by the 16th century. Laws from the time make mention of how many trees a family could harvest each year and what size they were allowed to be. In years where wood was scarce small wood pyramids were built and decorated instead of full trees.6
The Christmas tree eventually made its way to the United States, mainly by way of German immigrants. While some German communities were practicing the tradition by the mid-1700s the practice was more noticeable by the 1830s. However, the tradition did not catch on for a while. The Christmas tree was viewed as a pagan symbol, particularly in Puritan New England where laws forbade the practice for a long time. Eventually the greater prevalence of German and Irish immigrants in the first half of the 19th century made the practice more accepted.7 Americans brought their own spin on the tradition by installing full-size, floor-to-ceiling trees in their homes for the season as opposed to smaller tabletop size trees which was the German tradition.
The main turning point in the change of attitude surrounding the Christmas tree occurred in 1848. Across the Atlantic in Great Britain an engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decorating a Christmas tree with their family was printed in many British publications. Albert, who was of German descent, encouraged the practice in his household and in the country. The picture popularized the Christmas tree in Britain, and a few years later it made its way to American publications, particularly Godey’s Lady’s Book, the premier women’s magazine of the time. In following Queen Victoria’s fashion, the Christmas tree became popular in America and was established as a Christmastime tradition.8
Trees began being sold commercially in the 1850s, but the first Christmas Tree farm was established in 1901 by W.V. McGalliard on his farm in New Jersey. McGalliard planted 25,000 Norway spruce trees.9 Americans commonly cut down trees in nearby forests for their Christmas trees, and this practice gave cause for concerns about deforestation. President Theodore Roosevelt even considered banning the practice to preserve the forests, however Roosevelt’s sons along with conservationist Gifford Pinchot were able to show that the practice could be done in an environmentally conscious way and prevented the drastic measure.10
Trees were typically decorated with homemade or home-baked decorations like cookies, popcorn, nuts, berries, and fruits. Glass Christmas ornaments began to appear in the late 19th century, and were often imported from Germany.11 The advent of electricity later brought light to the tree. At the request of electric companies, the first National Christmas Tree lighting occurred in 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge lit a nearly 50 ft. Vermont Balsam fir that was strung with 2,500 electric bulbs. The National Christmas Tree Lighting has been an annual event ever since in Washington, D.C.12
The 1960s brought a new change to the Christmas tree industry: the fake Christmas Tree. The fake Christmas tree has taken over the Christmas tree industry in the past 50 years. A 2018 survey found that 82% of American households set up a fake Christmas tree while 18% choose to harvest a real tree for the season.13
Despite this change harvesting and decorating real Christmas trees remain a Christmas tradition that many practice. Around 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold each year in the United States. There are around 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the U.S. growing trees on 350,000 acres. Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states with Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington leading the way as the top producing states.14
1 History.com Editors, “History of Christmas Trees,” History.com, updated December 8, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees.
2 Olivia B. Waxman, “How Christmas Trees Became a Holiday Tradition,” Time.com, Time, updated December 21, 2020, https://time.com/5736523/history-of-christmas-trees/.
3 “The History of Christmas Trees,” National Christmas Tree Association, accessed December 8, 2022, https://realchristmastrees.org/education/history-of-christmas-trees/.
4 History.com Editors, “History of Christmas Trees,” History.com, updated December 8, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees.
5 Olivia B. Waxman, “How Christmas Trees Became a Holiday Tradition,” Time.com, Time, updated December 21, 2020, https://time.com/5736523/history-of-christmas-trees/.
6 “The History of Christmas Trees,” National Christmas Tree Association, accessed December 8, 2022, https://realchristmastrees.org/education/history-of-christmas-trees/.
7 History.com Editors, “History of Christmas Trees,” History.com, updated December 8, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees.
8 Amy Mitchell, “The History of the Christmas Tree Goes Back Farther Than You Might Realize,” Country Living, updated October 27, 2021, https://www.countryliving.com/life/a45590/christmas-tree-origin/.
9 “The History of Christmas Trees,” National Christmas Tree Association, accessed December 8, 2022, https://realchristmastrees.org/education/history-of-christmas-trees/.
11 Amy Mitchell, “The History of the Christmas Tree Goes Back Farther Than You Might Realize,” Country Living, updated October 27, 2021, https://www.countryliving.com/life/a45590/christmas-tree-origin/.
12 “National Christmas Tree,” National Park Service, accessed December 8, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/whho/planyourvisit/national-christmas-tree.htm.
13 Olivia B. Waxman, “How Christmas Trees Became a Holiday Tradition,” Time.com, Time, updated December 21, 2020, https://time.com/5736523/history-of-christmas-trees/.
14 “The History of Christmas Trees,” National Christmas Tree Association, accessed December 8, 2022, https://realchristmastrees.org/education/history-of-christmas-trees/.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.