A Sign of the Season: A Brief History of the Christmas Tree
It’s not the kind of sign we’re used to working with everyday, but somehow, decorated evergreen trees have become a holiday staple—a sign on the season. So where did this tradition come from? Depending on who you ask, Christmas trees have probably been around for anywhere between 400 to over 1,400 years. Read on to learn how the Christmas tree got its start and how it evolved into the modern-day tradition we continue to honor today.
Image via Flickr by protohiro
Trees and Celebration
Long before trees had anything to do with Christmas, ancient people would adorn their homes with evergreen boughs. These people believed that winter—with less sunshine, shorter days, and colder temperatures—was the result of the sun god becoming sick and weak. They celebrated mid-December’s winter solstice because it meant that soon the sun god would recover and restore green to the world. The evergreen boughs above doors and windows reminded them of this.
The First Christmas Trees
Some historians credit the first use of a Christmas tree to 7th-century Germany. At that time, an English monk traveled to Germany on a Christian mission. According to legend, he used the fir tree’s triangular shape as a symbol in his teachings to represent the holy trinity. By the 12th century, Central Europeans were hanging fir trees upside down from their ceilings as Christian symbols at Christmas time.
Eventually, the Germans began decorating their Christmas trees. In fact, Martin Luther is often credited as the first person to ever decorate a Christmas tree. As the story goes, Luther was walking home one winter night while writing a sermon. The beauty of the stars shining between the branches of the evergreens struck him to the point that he brought a small tree home and decorated it with lighted candles to recreate the scene for his children.
Fashionable Monarchs Overcome Puritanical Resistance
America was not exactly quick to adopt the Christmas tree tradition. The colonial Puritans decried any secular celebration of Christmas, condemning those who sang carols or put up decorations for the holiday. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria asked her husband, German Prince Albert, to honor the tradition of his childhood in Germany and decorate a Christmas tree that the custom began to catch on among non-Germans. The royal couple appeared with their children standing around a decorated Christmas tree in “Illustrated London News” in 1846, and the tradition caught fire among Brits and fashion-conscious East Coast American society.
Evolution of Decoration
In the 1890s, Americans were purchasing German-made Christmas ornaments and tinsel imported from Germany for their trees. Around the same time, a friend of Thomas Edison, Edward Johnson, decorated his tree with electric lights and then solicited press coverage. The tree appeared in the Detroit Post and Tribune as well as The New York Times, showing Americans just how glorious their trees could be with Edison’s discovery. However, Christmas tree lights remained financially impossible for most American households until the 1930s, when General Electric and other companies began manufacturing affordable strings of lights.
The Christmas tree has had a long and interesting evolution into the revered tradition it is today. What began as a celebration of the sun god’s healing period has become a beloved symbol of holiday spirit.