The History of the Christmas Tree

by Amy McGarry

Christmas brings an abundance of images to mind. Santa and his reindeer. Nativity scenes. Wreathes, holly, and mistletoe. And of course, that quintessential symbol of Christmas, the Christmas tree. For Americans, the Christmas tree is fundamental to Christmas. We literally commence the Christmas season by putting up the tree and decorating it the day after Thanksgiving. Or if you are truly dedicated, that might be the day you drive deep into the woods to harvest the perfect tree for the year.


However, when we think of the true meaning of Christmas, as Christians everywhere celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, where does the Christmas tree appear? No evergreen trees could be found in the desert of Bethlehem. Palm trees are especially difficult to decorate. No trees were given as gifts from the magi. So why is the Christmas tree so prominent in our Christmas traditions?


Investigating why the Christmas tree is so important to Americans took me back hundreds of years and across the sea to Germany. Here, in the 1500s, we see that devout Christians brought trees into their homes at Christmas time. Some created faux trees by building pyramids of wood which would be decorated with branches of evergreen trees and candles. But why did the Germans start doing this? One theory suggests that Martin Luther, who founded the Lutheran religion in 1517, began the tradition of bringing a fir tree into the home. Folklore contends that late one evening Martin Luther was walking home through the woods composing a sermon and became spellbound by the brilliance of the stars shining through the trees. Wanting to share this image with his family, he cut down a tree, brought it home, and decorated it with lighted candles.


As the Christmas tree spread throughout Europe, it was met with opposition in England. The English statesman Oliver Cromwell declared decorating trees (as well singing Christmas carols or showing any joyful expression) a heathen practice that was offensive to the holy Christian holiday.


This attitude was brought to the US by the earliest Puritans. In 1659, Massachusetts made it illegal to celebrate Christmas in any way whatsoever except attending church. Hanging Christmas decorations resulted in fines. No Christmas trees would be seen in the early Puritan US.


All that changed during the 1800s when a big wave of German immigrants relocated to the US carrying countless traditions with them. One of these traditions was the idea of the Christmas tree. However, a celebrity endorsement was required for the Christmas tree to gain mass popularity in the US. In 1846 a London newspaper published a sketch of Queen Victoria and her German Prince Albert standing by a Christmas tree surrounded by their children. Victoria was as popular in the US as she was with her own subjects. Americans who wanted to be fashionable like the queen adopted the Christmas tree tradition.


Christmas tree decorations go part and parcel for many Americans preparing for Christmas. During the early 20th century, before electricity, Americans decorated their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-Americans used apples, nuts, and cookies. Brightly colored popcorn interlaced with berries and nuts made the trees more beautiful. When electricity was discovered, Christmas trees were decorated with lights, making it possible for them to glow for days on end. Not to mention, reducing the threat of fire posed by trees covered in lit candles.


For many, myself included, the decorations carefully stored away each year take us for a walk down memory lane each year when we unbox them to decorate the tree. My collection includes crudely handmade ornaments from my earliest childhood, all the more precious in their imperfection. Some are gifts, reminding me of loved ones near, far, and departed. Ornaments passed on to me from my mother remind me of my childhood excitement, carefully selecting the perfect spot for each ornament, as Christmas music played joyfully in the background. These days my own daughter takes delight in examining each ornament, learning its history. The year she was born I started my own tradition of giving her a new ornament to start her own collection and create her own memories.


I always look forward to the visual delight of community Christmas trees displayed in town squares. Rockefeller Square in New Your City, home to the most famous community tree, received extra attention this year. The tree initially looked scraggly, and was mocked as a “Charlie Brown Christmas tree.” Some claimed it was symbolic as we come to the end of 2020, a difficult year for us all. But then a tiny owl was discovered to have stowed away in the tree, a symbol of resilience, much like the resilience of the evergreen Christmas tree itself.

Amy McGarry grew up in Spokane Valley, Washington. After a 20 year hiatus, she moved back to Spokane Valley where she lives with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is the author of “I am Farang: Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand” available on Amazon.com, Auntie’s Bookstore, and Barnes and Noble.

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