Even before the advent of Christianity, for people in the winter, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special significance. Much as people today decorate their homes with pine, spruce, and fir trees during the holiday season, ancient communities hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. It was believed that evergreens can keep witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and disease away in many nations.
The shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere occurs on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. It was claimed by many ancient people that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the god of the sun had become ill and frail. They celebrated the solstice because it meant the god of the sun would eventually start to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would re-grow when the god of the sun was high and summer would come back.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped a deity called Ra, who had a hawk’s head and wore the sun in his crown as a fiery disk. The Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes at the solstice when Ra began to recover from his illness, which symbolized the victory of life over death for them.
In celebration of Saturn, the god of agriculture, the early Romans celebrated the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia. The Romans realized that the solstice meant that farms and orchards were going to be lush and prosperous soon. They adorned their dwellings and temples with evergreen boughs to mark the occasion.
The enigmatic Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, often adorned their temples with evergreen branches in Northern Europe as a sign of eternal life. In Scandinavia, the fearsome Vikings thought that evergreens were a special plant for the god of the light, Balder.
In the 16th century, when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes, Germany is credited with beginning the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it. Some created wooden Christmas pyramids and if wood was scarce, adorned them with evergreens and candles.
Most Americans of the 19th century considered Christmas trees an oddity. The first mention of one being on show was by Pennsylvania’s German settlers in the 1830s, although trees had been a tradition much earlier in many German homes. As early as 1747, the Pennsylvania German colonies had community trees. But Christmas trees were seen as pagan decorations as late as the 1840s and were not recognized by most Americans.
It is not shocking that the tree was adopted so late in America, like many other festive Christmas traditions. Christmas was holy to the New England Puritans. The second governor of the pilgrims, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to root out the observance of “pagan mockery,” penalizing any frivolity.
In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts passed a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a criminal offense; individuals were fined for hanging decorations. The prominent Oliver Cromwell preached against the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any festive speech the desecrated “that sacred event.” Until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants eroded the Puritan tradition, the stern solemnity persisted.
The preacher of the 16th century, Martin Luther, was recorded as one of the first individuals to carry a Christmas tree to his house, and also one of the first to add lights to the tree. Martin was seen walking through the forest one night before Christmas, according to tradition, and looked up to see the brightly shining stars glistening through the branches of the tree. He put a tree in his living room to capture this scene for his family, and wired its branches with beautiful lights.
Christmas ornaments came from Germany in the 1890s and the popularity of the Christmas tree was rising in the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked reaching from floor to ceiling with their Christmas trees.
Although it is said that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were the ones who in the 1800s made Christmas trees famous in England, it dates back far further than this. The custom began in Germany, where the wife of King George III was born. His German wife, Charlotte, was thought to have decorated a Christmas tree with her family during the 1760s.
For those that were wealthy and noble, Charlotte had a tree set up at the Queen’s Lodge in Windsor for a children’s party. Not long after, among some wealthy families, getting a tree was also common. In 1848, in addition to the Illustrated London News, a drawing of The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle’ was published. After many people read this the trend of decorating trees began to increase.
The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mostly with handmade ornaments, although apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies continued to be used by the German-American sect. After being dyed with vibrant colors and interlaced with berries and nuts, popcorn joined in. Electricity brought Christmas lights, causing Christmas trees to shine for days to come. With this, Christmas trees started to appear in city squares around the country, and it became an American tradition to have a Christmas tree at home.
We also decorate ours with baubles, just like the very early Christmas trees, and hang them with lights. For many families, buying a real Christmas tree is still a tradition, but we have seen a rise in the number of artificial trees over the years particularly pre-lit Christmas trees, as people prefer fuss-free, low-maintenance trees that can be reused every year.
With patterns such as rainbow trees, sunflower trees and multi-coloured ‘party’ trees shaping the way people decorate, as well as wooden Christmas trees and twig trees, we’ve also seen decorations take a more extravagant turn. Each year, these alternative trees gain more popularity, and some households are totally ditching trees, opting instead to decorate a houseplant as a Christmas tree.
Check out my related post: How did Santa come about?