The Christmas tree is an instantly recognizable symbol of warmth and good cheer. While today Christmas trees are synonymous with the Christmas season, this hasn’t always been the case. The tradition of decorating the home with evergreen trees has transformed through time from a celebration of nature and the winter solstice to a ubiquitous symbol of the Christmas holiday.
While Christmas trees are often associated with Christianity, decorations made of evergreen trees were used long before Christianity was established. Trees and plants that stay green throughout the year have long been used to decorate homes during winter, as they remind people of the vitality of nature, and of the spring and summer to come. Common types of early evergreen decorations included boughs from pine, spruce, and fir trees hung over windows or doors. Before the advent of Christianity some people believed that decorations such as these repelled witches, evil spirits, and illness from the home.
Evergreen trees were also used by people in early civilizations to ring in the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Many people believed that during the winter solstice, the short day and long night indicated that the sun god had become weak and sick. Decorations made of evergreen trees were hung to remind people of the green that would accompany the upcoming spring and summer.
Christmas Trees in Germany
The modern day tradition of the Christmas tree has its origins in 16th century Germany. Around this time period, German Christians began to bring decorated evergreen trees into their homes to celebrate the holiday. Some households constructed wooden pyramids in their homes and decorated them with evergreen boughs if trees in the community were scarce.
One German folk story regarding the origins of the Christmas tree states that a German forester and his family were celebrating Christmas when they received a knock on their door. After finding a young boy on their front steps, they took him in and let him sleep in their home overnight. In the morning, the guest revealed himself to be Jesus and gave the family a fir tree branch as a thank you gift.
While Christmas trees spread quickly through Europe, they were met with initial skepticism in American culture. American Puritans believed that Christmas trees carried pagan connotations that were incompatible with the religious nature of the holiday. The General Court of Massachusetts went so far as to enact a law prohibiting any celebration of Christmas other than attending church services, and those households who decorated for Christmas were fined. This hostility toward Christmas trees persisted until large numbers of Irish and German immigrants settled in America.
The first recorded use of lights to decorate a Christmas tree was in the household of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, in the 16th century. While walking home in the dark, he was awed by the sight of stars between the branches of an evergreen tree. Inspired, he went home and attached candles to his Christmas tree.
The identity of the first person to use electric light bulbs to decorate a Christmas tree is disputed. One account describes a colleague of Thomas Edison stringing up red, white, and blue Christmas lights on the branches of his Christmas tree in 1882. Following this, Thomas Edison’s company put up advertisements in 1890 for electric Christmas light rentals. Electric Christmas lights became more widespread in the U.S. after Grover Cleveland put them on the Christmas tree in the White House.
Queen Victoria’s Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree finally became popular in American culture starting in 1846, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert appeared in the London News with their children next to a Christmas tree. Because Queen Victoria was very popular throughout both England and America, increasing numbers of Americans began to celebrate the holiday with Christmas trees. By the early 20th century the Christmas tree was widely accepted as a Christmas convention. Town squares and stores began to erect Christmas trees each year, and the tradition was no longer associated with paganism.
Christmas Trees Around the World
Today, people in many countries celebrate the holiday with Christmas trees. In Mexican households, a small Christmas tree is often featured as part of el Nacimiento, or the nativity scene. In Britain most households celebrate using Norway spruce trees, which are native to the country. In Greenland, where there are no native evergreen trees, all Christmas trees are imported.
While traditional decorations in many countries include popcorn, tinsel, and homemade ornaments, people in some countries decorate with more unique materials. In the Philippines, Christmas trees are usually fake, and are decorated with rice paper lanterns. In Japan, where Christmas is primarily a secular holiday, Christmas trees are often decorated with origami swans, signifying peace.