Another Boomer reflection: take a moment to put your feet up, sit back, relax, have a cup of hot cocoa, a flavored coffee drink, or a rum and eggnog. Christmas would not be complete without a bit of history on how the Christmas tree has evolved into what we have today.
Probably the best way to understand the history is to realize there are two periods of time that best describe the symbolism and evolution of the Christmas tree: the ancient and modern traditions.
The use of evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. During the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, houses were decorated with wreaths of evergreen plants, along with other antecedent customs now associated with Christmas. In the 8th century, Vikings and Saxons worshipped trees through various pagan practices along with the Germans, where the custom of suspending a branch of fir, spruce or pine from the ceiling was a widely accepted practice. These branches were decorated with apples, nuts, cookies, colored paper, stars made of straw, ribbons and colored wafers, each having their own symbolic significance. It’s interesting to note, they would often substitute Mistletoe as an alternative. Because of the plant’s association with fertility, it was used to reconcile one’s differences in the family, with friends, and even with enemies at war, and thus was born the custom of kissing under the Mistletoe.
The modern Christmas tree is said to have originated during the Renaissance in Germany around the 16thcentury, where it was said they first brought trees into their homes and added lighted candles to an evergreen. These trees were also adorned with colored paper, tinsel (tinsel was derived from the bygone belief that spider’s webs would turn into silver at Christmas time), and edible items such as apples, dates, ginger-bread, chocolate and other sweets.
The earliest known firmly dated representation of a Christmas tree is on the keystone sculpture of a private home in Turckheim, Alsace (then part of Germany, now part of France) with the date of 1576.
By the early 18th century, the modern tradition had become more common-place in towns along the Rhineland, in northern Germany. During this period, the Christmas tree was largely regarded as a Protestant custom, but gained wider acceptance beginning around 1815 due to emigrants of varying religious backgrounds arriving from surrounding countries.
In the early-to-mid 19th century, the custom also was gaining popularity among the nobility of the royal courts, where it is said Queen Victoria placed a tree in her room every Christmas.
The first Danish Christmas tree was chronicled by Hans Christian Andersen when in 1844 he published a fairy-tale entitled The Fir Tree, recounting the fate of the poor little fir tree being used as a Christmas tree.
The tradition of the tree with candles and fruits was introduced to North America in the winter of 1781 by Hessian soldiers stationed in the Province of Quebec, and finally came to the United States shortly thereafter.
The “First Christmas Tree in America” is claimed by German settlers in 1816 in Easton, Pennsylvania and then in 1821 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and was limited in size to 8 feet. In the 1830’s-to-1840’s the custom of decorating the tree was introduced, and in 1847 August Imgard, a German immigrant cut a blue spruce from the woods outside his town in Wooster, Ohio, and had the local tinsmith construct a star which he then placed atop the tree, along with hanging dolls and sugar items from the branches. The first documented accounts were published along with images during the Christmas of 1850 in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most influential medium of its time spreading the message of Christmas and its accompanying tree.
In 1882, Thomas Edison’s partner, Edward H. Johnson who was then vice president of Edison Electric Light Company, created the first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree at his home in New York City. A technology was born.
Since the early 20th century, the Christmas tree has become a common figure in many cities, towns, and department stores, such as the Macy’s Great Tree in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City.
The United States National Christmas Tree has been lit each year since 1923 on the south lawn of the White House. Teddy Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House for environmental reasons. From 1948 to 1951 President Truman spent Christmas at his home in Independence, Missouri and lit the National Community Christmas Tree by remote control. In 1979 then President Jimmy Carter lit only the crowning star atop the tree in honor of the Americans being held hostage in Iran. The same was true in 1980, except that the tree was fully lit for 417 seconds, one second for each day the hostages had been in captivity.
In the past, Christmas trees were often harvested from wild forests, but now almost all are commercially grown on tree farms and are cut after about 10 years of growth and new trees planted in their place.
The first artificial Christmas trees were developed in Germany during the 19th century and were made using goose feathers that were dyed green, and ranged in size from 2 inches to 9 footers where they were often sold in department stores during the 1920’s. The tree branches were tipped with artificial berries which acted as candle holders.
Over the years, other styles of artificial trees have evolved and become popular. In 1930 the U.S. based Addis Brush Company created the first artificial tree made from brush bristles.
Another type, the aluminum tree first manufactured in Chicago in 1958, and later in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Today, most modern artificial Christmas trees are made from plastic recycled from used packaging materials. Other trends have developed in the early 2000’s with optical fiber trees where some resemble the traditional tree, and others are holographic mylar offered in many hues.
Here’s one I bet you don’t remember, the upside-down Christmas tree. Displaying one may actually date back to the 7th century, where a Benedictine monk used the triangular shape of a fir tree to explain the Holy Trinity. However, upside down artificial trees became popular in department stores where they were introduced as a marketing gimmick, so more ornaments could be displayed at eye level to the buying public, and they opened up more floor space to hold extra stock of decorations. Today, artificial Christmas trees claim roughly 58% of the Christmas trees purchased each year in the United States, and the percentage is even higher in Europe.
I hope you found this short history lesson somewhat enlightening. The Christmas tree is as iconic in American culture as McDonalds or muscle cars. Unless you have a “Charlie Brown” tree, we enjoy the perfectly triangular shape which lends itself to decorating with homemade and artistic ornaments along with a variety of white and colored lights that add to the beauty and color of the branches and dazzle day and night.
Contributing Editorial: AllAboutHistory.org and Wikipedia
Disclaimer: I subscribe to no authorship of this article, other than to have had the distinct privilege of assembling bits and pieces of historical information from the internet. The purpose was to share insight into what is documented as chronicled accounts of the evolution of the Christmas tree. I trust you enjoyed the reading as much as I did researching it.