From their roots in ancient pagan celebrations of the winter solstice to their ban in colonial America, the history of the Christmas tree is longer and more complicated than most people realize.
Few symbols encapsulate the Christmas season quite as well as the Christmas tree. Each year, homes around the world are illuminated by their festive lights. Strands of tinsel and ornaments reflect brightly in the window as the people inside warm themselves by the fire, sipping eggnog and awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus.
Then, in January, when the pine needles have overstayed their welcome, those same trees decoratively line the curb, awaiting the arrival of waste management. But, why? What is the origin of the Christmas tree?
As a tradition, chopping down a tree, bringing it into your home, and covering it in decorations is, frankly, a bit odd. Yet, it’s a pervasive element in Christmas celebrations across the world despite having seemingly little to do with Christianity itself. In fact, the tradition predates the religious ceremony to which it has become attached.
Indeed, the surprising history of Christmas trees originates with pagan winter solstice celebrations, a fact that once made the now-popular symbol a point of contempt in Christian cultures.
So, how did a tree become a central element of Christmas celebrations?
The Importance Of Evergreen Trees In Pagan Yule Celebrations
Like many pagan traditions, the exact birthplace of and meaning behind symbolic evergreen trees has been muddied by history, but historians have been able to at least somewhat identify the where and why in a broad sense.
“Evergreens at midwinter festivals were traditional since the ancient world, signifying the victory of life and light over death and darkness,” Carole Cusack, a professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney, told National Geographic.
Multiple countries have laid claim to starting the tradition, but historians have been able to trace it, at the very least, to Northern Europe, where the forests were flush with evergreen trees.
Evergreens likely held a special significance in pagan cultures because they retained their color in the winter months. Whereas other trees shed their leaves and appeared like dead, gnarled things springing from the ground, evergreens were a symbol of life.
Many pagan cultures adorned their homes with evergreen boughs to keep evil spirits at bay, a common element among winter solstice rituals. In fact, according to the Society of Ethnobiology, the period now known as the 12 Days of Christmas was considered by pagan cultures to be the darkest and most dangerous time of the year.
Pagan myths say that during those 12 days, Odin and the Wild Hunt would ride through the sky, concealed by dark storm clouds, ready to abduct anyone unfortunate enough to have failed to find a hiding place.
Fearful believers would cover their homes in aromatic plants like pine and fir, smudging the walls with resin as a protective measure.
The importance of these trees was detailed in the writings of 12th-century German scientist and Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen: “Wherever the fir wood stands, the spirits of the air hate it, and shun it. Enchantments and magic spells have less power to effect things there, than they do in other places.”
There are variations of this story in many ancient cultures, including Greek myths that speak of the Kallikantzaroi, a race of elves who spend the year attempting to cut down the World Tree and surface only during the 12 Days.
Similar beliefs can be found in the cultures of ancient Rome and Egypt, where greenery served an equally protective and spiritual role. And despite Christianity’s eventual overtaking of many pagan religions, elements of the tradition lingered on — and eventually became the Christmas tree as we now know it.
The Origin Of The Christmas Tree In Europe
Although many countries have declared themselves the home of the Christmas tree, historians have said it’s likely that the real first tree was erected in 16th-century Alsace, in modern-day France.
At the time, however, Alsace was a part of German territory, and so the tradition technically belongs to the Germans.
Historical records show that a Christmas tree was indeed put up in the Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539, and the tradition quickly became popular throughout the region.
In fact, Christmas trees became such a rage that laws had to be put in place banning the cutting of pine branches and limiting each house to one tree, according to TIME.
The Protestant reformer Martin Luther is also commonly credited with being the first person to put lights on a Christmas tree. He is said to have decorated his family’s tree with candles one night after a long walk through a forest in which he became entranced by the stars above him.
As Germans settled in other regions across Europe, they brought the tradition with them. By the 18th century, Christmas trees were a common staple in European countries.
It was around this time, in the mid-18th century, that George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, supposedly brought the first Christmas tree into the royal palace. However, it wasn’t until 1848 that the common image of a decorated Christmas tree with presents beneath it took hold.
That year, the Illustrated London News published an engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathered around a tree with their children admiring the toys beneath its branches.
That image was later reprinted by an American women’s magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book with the title, “The Christmas Tree.”
Christmas trees had been referenced in American history since the 17th century, as Germans brought the tradition with them to America as well. Following the publication in Godey’s, however, Christmas trees finally became popular in the U.S.
But they weren’t always so readily accepted.
The History Of Christmas Trees In The United States
The Christmas tree made its way to the States following German immigration patterns, but it wasn’t well received at first, largely due to entrenched cultural attitudes and a fear that a leisurely celebration such as Christmas would reduce labor productivity.
In fact, in 1621, Puritan governor William Bradford wrote that he tried to stamp out the “pagan mockery” of Christmas decorations and celebrations, arguing that they promoted excess and lacked any origin in Scripture.
And in 1659, according to HISTORY, the General Court of Massachusetts made observation of the holiday illegal. If anyone was caught celebrating in any way other than attending church services, they would have to pay a fine. Even after the ban was repealed, New Englanders sustained their disdain for the Christmas tree and the holiday — even to the point that carolers would be prosecuted for “disturbing the peace.”
This vitriol for the Christmas tree continued well into the 19th century, but popular icons, technological innovations, and a desire to unite the U.S. would all play a role in tempering it.
Then, the Godey’s illustration was published, with some editing to remove the Queen’s crown and other references to the royals so that it would better resonate with American workers.
It was an evident success, and in the late 19th century, the advent of Thomas Edison’s long-lasting carbon filament lamps brought about Christmas lights, replacing Luther’s 16th-century fire hazard.
Electricity lobbyists led the push for a “National Christmas Tree” at the White House to show off the wonders of electricity. In 1923, a 48-foot-tall balsam fir tree with 2,500 light bulbs was erected in the nation’s capital, per the National Park Service.
Not long after, a 20-foot-tall Christmas tree was displayed at the Rockefeller Center, which was still under construction. Soon enough, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country.
Today, more than 25 million live Christmas trees are sold each year in the United States — and that’s not to account for the 84 percent of families who put an artificial tree on display in their homes. What began as a pagan tradition has exploded into a key part of Christmas celebrations across the globe.
After this look at Christmas tree history, read up on 15 bizarre Santa Claus legends from around the world. Then, see where your Christmas decorations come from in this look inside the Chinese factories responsible for making them.