The History of Christmas Trees

The History of Christmas Trees

It’s always exciting when the Christmas tree finally goes up at my house; it signifies the beginning of the winter season and imminent holiday cheer. Whether decorating homes, public spaces, or even the iconic Rockefeller Center, the Christmas tree is a widely-loved holiday tradition. These evergreen trees are commonly pine, spruce, or fir, and are adorned with lights and ornaments. But have you ever wondered how and where the Christmas tree originated?

Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews used evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life. Especially during the colder seasons, evergreens reminded people of the fruitful vegetation that would grow again in spring and summer. Pagan Europeans also worshipped evergreen trees, and the tradition remained when they converted to Christianity.

The modern Christmas tree we see today originated in Western Germany. In a medieval play about Adam and Eve, the main prop was a “paradise tree,” a fir tree decorated with apples that represented the Garden of Eden. Germans set up paradise trees in their homes on December 24th to commemorate the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on the trees to symbolize the Eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption, and they also hung candles to portray Christ as the world’s light.

In the same room as the tree, the Germans placed a Christmas pyramid. This decoration was a wooden triangle with shelves to hold Christmas figurines, and it was adorned with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century, the paradise tree and the Christmas pyramid merged to create the familiar triangular shaped Christmas tree we know today.

The Christmas tree was taken by German settlers to North America as early as the 17th century. It was introduced to the English in the 19th century and popularized by German-born Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. Victorian Christmas trees were adorned with toys, small gifts, candies, candles, and popcorn strings. The Christmas tree then became very popular throughout Europe in countries such as Austria, Poland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. It was even spread to China and Japan by Western missionaries, where the trees were decorated with intricate paper designs. 

In the 1870s, blown glass ornaments made in small workshops in Germany and Bohemia started to be sold in Great Britain and the US. Twenty years later, strings of electric tree lights became available to the market. In the 1930s, the artificial tree was developed which also gained popularity. 

Decorating the Christmas tree with my family is one of my favorite holiday traditions. It serves as an opportunity for us to spend time together as well as reflect on our memories. We decorate our tree with lights and ornaments, but many of our ornaments have sentimental value. Whether they’re ones I created in elementary school, ones that are souvenirs from our travels, or ones representing each of our passions, I love looking back on these ornaments with my family while the fireplace burns and Christmas music plays in the background. When you decorate your tree this season, or the next time you see one in public, take a minute to appreciate the history of this Christmas tradition that connects millions of families worldwide and spreads holiday cheer each year.

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