Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees
that remained green all year had a special meaning for
people in the winter. Just as people today decorate
their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce,
and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs
over their doors and windows. In many countries it was
believed that evergreens would keep away witches,
ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest
day and longest night of the year falls on December 21
or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many
ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that
winter came every year because the sun god had become
sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it
meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well.
Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants
that would grow again when the sun god was strong and
summer would return.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god
called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun
as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra
began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled
their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for
them the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a
feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god
of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant
that soon farms and orchards would be green and
fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their
homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids,
the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their
temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting
life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that
evergreens were the special plant of the sun god,
Germany is credited with starting the
Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th
century when devout Christians brought decorated trees
into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood
and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood
was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin
Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer,
first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward
his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was
awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst
evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he
erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches
with lighted candles.
Most 19th-century Americans
found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one
being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers
of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in
many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German
settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But,
as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan
symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
It is not surprising that, like many
other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so
late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas
was sacred. The pilgrims’s second governor, William
Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan
mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity.
The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the
heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated
trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that
sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of
Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of
December 25 (other than a church service) a penal
offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That
stern solemnity continued until the 19th
century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants
undermined the Puritan legacy.
In 1846, the popular royals, Queen
Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in
the Illustrated London News standing with their children
around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal
family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and
what was done at court immediately became
fashionable—not only in Britain, but with
fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The
Christmas tree had arrived.
By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were
arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was
on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans
used small trees about four feet in height, while
Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from
floor to ceiling.
The early 20th century saw
Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade
the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts,
and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed
bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts.
Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it
possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end.
With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town
squares across the country and having a Christmas tree
in the home became an American tradition.
Christmas tree trivia
Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the
United States since about 1850.
1979, the National Christmas Tree was not lighted except
for the top ornament. This was done in honor of the
American hostages in Iran.
Between 1887-1933 a fishing schooner called the
Christmas Ship would tie up at the Clark Street bridge
and sell spruce trees from Michigan to Chicagoans.
tallest living Christmas tree is believed to be the
122-foot, 91-year-old Douglas fir in the town of
Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition began in
Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, brought
the Christmas tree tradition to the White House.
1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National
Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held
·every year on the White House lawn.
1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has given
a Christmas tree to the President and first family.
Christmas trees are cut weeks before they get to a
1912, the first community Christmas tree in the United
States was erected in New York City.
Christmas trees generally take 6-8 years to mature.
Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states including
Hawaii and Alaska.
100,000 people are employed in the Christmas tree
percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farms.
than 1,000,000 acres of land have been planted with
million Christmas trees are planted each year.
average, over 2,000 Christmas trees are planted per
should never burn your Christmas tree in the fireplace.
It can contribute to creosote buildup.
types of trees such as cherry and hawthorns were used as
Christmas trees in the past.
Thomas Edison’s assistants came up with the idea of
electric lights for Christmas trees.
1963, the National Christmas Tree was not lit until
December 22nd because of a national 30-day
·period of mourning following the assassination of President
Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House
for environmental reasons.
the first week, a tree in your home will consume as much
as a quart of water per day.
Tinsel was once banned by the government. Tinsel
contained lead at one time, now it’s made of plastic.
1984, the National Christmas Tree was lit on December 13th
with temperatures in the 70s, making it one of the
warmest tree lightings in history.
36 million Christmas trees are produced each year and 95
percent are shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree
Oregon, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania,
and North Carolina are the top
·Christmas tree producing states.
best selling trees are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser
Fir, Balsam Fir, and White Pine.