“O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches”—this popular seasonal song begins by complimenting the Christmastime symbol we all automatically associate with the holiday. And while we may be familiar with this festive figure, covered in ornaments and lights, there’s a lot we might be surprised to learn about its history! When exactly did the Christmas tree tradition begin, and who started it? We’ll answer all of your Christmas tree origin questions here!
It’s routine for those who celebrate Christmas to decorate their homes eagerly in anticipation of December 25th. Some people hang stockings over their fireplace, put up outdoor lights (hopefully with more success than Clark Griswold!), string up garland on staircases and banisters, set out coveted seasonal candles, and/or place nutcrackers, nativity scenes, or a mischievous Elf on the Shelf around the house. But one of the most universal ways to decorate involves something even more eye-catching: the infamous Christmas tree.
Christmas Tree Origin
What has the evergreen tree symbolized in history?
In ancient times, it was common to believe that the sun was a god. In the winter, the god appeared to be sick, but the evergreens that thrived during this time reminded the people that the sun would become strong again and bring back with it greenery and warmth.
Similarly, ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews saw evergreens as a symbol of eternal life. Long before Jesus Christ’s birth (and the subsequent celebrations), pagans in Europe would use evergreens in their homes as a way of representing fertility and new life.
When were Christmas trees first linked to Christianity?
There are various myths and legends about the Christmas tree’s origin and its significance to Christianity—instead of just to pagan worship. For example, one claim from the 15th century is that in the 8th century, Christian missionary, Saint Boniface, came across Germans who were offering sacrifices to their false god, Thor, in front of an oak tree. Boniface allegedly began cutting down the tree with his axe to stop their worship, and they expected him to be struck by lightning from their god. When that didn’t happen, he began telling them about Christ. Then, as the legend goes, a fir tree later grew out of that oak.
Who started the Christmas tree tradition?
It is widely believed that in the Middle Ages, modern-day Germany revealed the first real Christmas trees. After all, “In 1419, a guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, flour-paste wafers, tinsel and gingerbread.” There were also events on Christmas Eve called “Paradise Plays” that celebrated the feast day of Adam and Eve, and a fir tree with apples on its branches was used to represent the Tree of Knowledge. These “paradise trees” began to be set up in family homes throughout Germany, with wafers placed among the branches.
Another legend involves Martin Luther of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, who first added lights to his family’s tree. It is said that he was walking home one winter evening and was struck by how beautiful the stars looked shining through the evergreens, so he recreated the look at home with candles.
When did Americans start putting up Christmas trees?
German settlers brought with them the tradition of putting up Christmas trees to America, but most Puritans rejected this custom because of its foreign pagan roots. And their rejection of anything pagan-related or anything “frivolous” surrounding Christmas was serious. For example, “In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense [and] people were fined for hanging decorations.”
The first recorded instance of Christmas trees being displayed in the United States wasn’t until the 1830s, which was by German settlers in Pennsylvania. Even still, it took the popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, publishing an edited illustration in 1850, which featured Britain’s fashionable Queen Victoria and Prince Albert standing beside a fully decked-out Christmas tree (from two years prior, in 1848) to begin truly popularizing this tradition in America.
What’s the history behind decorating with Christmas tree ornaments?
The act of decorating Christmas trees has its roots in the Germanic history of setting up “paradise trees.” And once the British Queen and Prince had their extravagant Christmas tree showcased, people all around the world wanted to copy their trendy holiday style.
When it comes to ornaments in particular, legend has it that a glassblower named Hans Greiner could not afford apples to decorate his Christmas tree, so he created his own out of glass. The trend caught on with others ordering various glass ornaments depicting fruit as well.
Once the decorating of Christmas trees was less taboo and more accepted in America, the demand for decorations became extremely high. In 1880, Woolworth store founder, F.W. Woolworth, reluctantly bought 144 inexpensive Christmas ornaments to sell in his store from a traveling German salesman, and they sold out in a matter of hours. The next year, he bought twice as much and those sold out quickly as well. The appeal of these baubles stuck, and all of these years later, glass ornaments are still used to adorn and enhance Christmas trees today.
When did artificial Christmas trees become popular?
Once the trend of having Christmas trees really took off around the world, there was some concern in various areas over the decreasing supply of trees. To help combat the shortage in the 1880s, Germans began making artificial goose-feather trees. Throughout the next few decades, other materials were used for artificial tree production in other countries as well. And by 1964, TIME magazine declared “fake trees” to be the hot new Christmas trend.
Today, artificial trees are the go-to choice for most families. According to a Nielsen survey in early December of 2017, 81% of Christmas trees displayed by households that year were expected to be artificial, and only 19% real.
What year was the first Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting?
The majority of Americans in and outside of New York City are familiar with and appreciate the seasonal, televised spectacle that is the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting. 1931 was the first year that this special location displayed a Christmas tree, when a 20-ft.-tall balsam was put up on Christmas Eve by the construction workers who were building Rockefeller Center at the time. Instead of being covered in dramatic crystals like the Rockefeller Christmas trees we’re used to these days, it featured tin cans, strings of cranberries, and garlands of paper. And not only that, it featured hope—this extremely large construction project, which provided many jobs, was taking place in the middle of the Great Depression.
Two years later, in 1933, was when the first official tree lighting ceremony took place at Rockefeller Center, with a 40-ft.-tall tree. And since then, the annual tradition has continued to grow exponentially in both sentimentality, as well as in show. In 2019, for example, a 77-ft.-tall Norway spruce was brought in by crane and wrapped with 50,000 lights, topped with a Swarovski star, and covered in three million Swarovski crystals. Talk about a fa-la-la-la-lavish glow-up!