Origins of The Christmas Tree


We start out with trees because that's how the ornament idea itself started. And, since trees are such an integral part of our tradition, it's worth noting why we have them, and how ornaments came to be inseparable from them.

As with many customs or traditions of today, the Christmas tree has its origins rooted in a number of regional practices that have since settled into a few basic versions.

Some say that the tree represents the one whose wood was made into a cross and used to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. Others say that its origin goes back to the original Tree of Knowledge and that is why so many early decorations were apples. Those who point to the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia as a source for our contemporary trees note the evergreens were used as decoration during that long ago holiday that ended on December 25. The evergreen theme continues to weave its way through the history of Christmas trees as a symbol of the promise of life to come after months of cold winter. This particularly holds true in Germany, the home of many of the legends we still honor in one way or another.

Over the centuries various saints have been associated with Christmas trees. An illustration from around 1600 A.D. shows St. Christopher with the Christ Child riding on his shoulder and passing under a leafless tree that has a variety of fruit, candy, baskets and what looks suspiciously like glass ball ornaments hanging from it. It took more than two centuries and a transformation from deciduous to evergreen for the idea to more fully take hold, however.

Another saint ties together both the concept of the Christmas tree and the date when Christmas is celebrated. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have gone to Britain around December of 63 A.D. to bring Christianity to the Britons. By then an old man, Joseph carried a staff to aid in walking. Upon reaching the crest of a bluff above where his boat had landed, the tired and cold Joseph thrust his staff of hawthorn into the ground where it immediately took root and bloomed. While Britain had other varieties of hawthorn, this particular bush was the only one to bloom at Christmas time.

Boy with  Christmas Tree

But what was "Christmas time"? According to the Christian calendar, Christmas was observed on December 25. But the creators of the calendar did not take into account the actual length of a year (a little more than 364 and a quarter days) so that by the late 1500s the calendar and the earth were ten days out of sync. Pope Gregory decreed that those ten days would not occur in the year 1582 so Catholics everywhere turned the pages of their calendars that year from October 5 to October 15.

It took until 1752 for Britain to adopt the Gregorian calendar (politics - and reality - playing a large part, for by then the gap between what the calendar said, and what the physical date was, had widened to eleven days) so on December 25 of that year, the hawthorn (by then known as the Glastonbury Thorn) didn't bloom. It was not until January 5 that its blooms opened and now, an additional two-and-a-half centuries later, it waits at least until the 7th.

Despite the Glastonbury Thorn, Christmas trees remained pretty much a German institution. By the early 1800s evergreens, often first, were found in German homes decorated with apples (going back to the Garden of Eden idea), nuts and berries. Sometimes these decorations were eaten by the children of the family; sometimes they were saved to be shared with birds and squirrels after the celebration was over. Over time, these decorations were augmented by paper streamers which were reminiscent of the hair of the angles who had "decorated" the tree and that had been caught in its branches. Paper versions of apples and other fruit became popular when the real articles were unavailable.

Candle lights were added to Christmas trees as an attempt to further explain the story of Christmas. Again, however, legend plays an important part in determining how generations of people either did, or didn't, light their trees. Martin Luther is said to have been the first to add lights to his tree in order to give his children a better understanding of the stars in the Heaven from which Jesus came. Whether true or not, it might help explain why, for decades, lighted Christmas trees were thought to be an integral part of the Protestant celebration of Christmas and thus were considerably less popular in Catholic homes and churches.

Family by Tree

Around the midpoint of the Nineteenth Century, in addition to candle lights - or not - decorations hanging from Christmas trees included miniature replicas of fruit, animals, toys, musical instruments and angels made primarily out of materials available in homes.

By this time the idea of the Christmas tree had already made its way to Britain. Queen Victoria included a Christmas tree as a part of the Royal Family's celebration of Christmas in 1840 in honor of her German-born husband, Prince Albert.

In the United States immigrants from Germany had also introduced the idea of the Christmas tree as an integral part of their holiday festivities. Adoption in this country was extensive, aided perhaps by the publication of Kris Kringle's Christmas Tree in 1845.

Christmas Tree

The first Christmas tree to appear in the White House was erected in 1856 by President Franklin Pierce. The first truly national Christmas tree was inaugurated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, but it was not until President Calvin Coolidge moved the tree to its present location near the White House - and ceremoniously switched on the newly installed electric lights - that the idea of an "official" tree took hold.

Mom and kid decorating Christmas tree together

Christmas trees were not limited to a place of honor in the home. Community trees not only became symbols of holiday spirit and civic pride, but also served as the only source of a tree for the estimated eighty percent of Americans at the turn of the Twentieth Century who did not, or could not, have a tree in their homes. Today, more than 85 percent of Americans have at least one Christmas tree in their homes each year, about half of them real and the other half replicas of trees. And electric utility companies take in an estimated $30 million in additional revenue.


The Changing Nature of Christmas Trees


Americans' taste in trees has ranged through a variety of evergreens over the years, refined - or at least influenced - by illustrations in popular magazines, such as Colliers, Look, Life, Ladies Home Journal and others, of "the tree for this season."

Ecology, too, has played a part in the type of tree in people's homes. President Theodore Roosevelt decided that America's forests were in danger of being over cut because of the increasing popularity of Christmas trees and banned their appearance in the White House in 1900. His advisors then showed him research that not only were sufficient trees available in the wild but that farms devoted to the raising of trees solely for use at Christmas represented a growing economic segment. The fact that his sons had smuggled a tree into their bedroom may have also had some influence.


Artificial - metal and other materials

Bringing a cut tree, even one that is freshly cut, into an enclosed space such as a living room or parlor, presents inherent challenges in keeping the tree watered sufficiently to retain its needles.

Red Tree

Initial efforts to create artificial trees were made by companies that also made industrial-strength bottle brushes. Even heavily sprayed with early pine-scented air fresheners, these left much to be desired. Since then, artificial tree manufacturers have turned to more sophisticated materials that much more closely replicate the look and feel of nature. Many families now avoid the necessary assembly of their artificial tree by storing tree - and decorations - fully assembled in the attic or basement.

In the late'Fifties and early 'Sixties the advent of aluminum trees occurred as the "modern" answer to watering and needle drop... and as a companion to the design craze that aluminum was the design answer to every housewife's dream.Designed to be illuminated by a colored spot light, or a revolving color wheel, aluminum trees also called for specially designed ornaments.

Which leads us to a more extensive look at ornaments themselves.

Written by Dianne Weller

Top of Page