Life / December 20, 2019

The History Of The Christmas Tree

When you think of Christmas trees, you’re probably greeted with fond and nostalgic memories about the Christmases of your youth. Maybe it’s the excitement of unboxing and hanging ornaments with your family, or maybe it’s taking one final look at the gleaming lights before heading off to bed, knowing that the empty space below the tree would soon be filled with mounds of presents in the morning. Whatever it may be, there is nothing that says Christmas quite like a Christmas tree.

But where did this weird tradition begin? The story is pretty interesting and involves everything from Sun Gods to Witches and Evil Spirits.

First things first: bringing greenery and foliage into the home has been a longstanding tradition that was thought to ward away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. These traditions date back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who gravitated towards plants that stay green all year round. In fact, the ancient Egyptians used to bring these plants into the home toward the end of winter to symbolize and encourage the rebirth of life for their Sun God Ra, who they thought got ill during the wintertime.

Image of Ra
Egyptian Sun God Ra

Ancient Romans also marked the solstice with a feast to honor Saturn, their god of agriculture. They recognized that the solstice meant that soon enough, farms and agriculture would again be green and fruitful. To celebrate, they also decorated their homes and temples with lots and lots of greens.

Feast for the god Saturn
Saturnalia Feast

We can thank the Germans for the current iteration of the Christmas tree we know and love so much. In the 16th Century, die-hard Christians often brought trees and small wooden pyramids into their homes. They decorated them with lots of greenery and candles. But believe it or not, most Americans thought this tradition was a little odd, and not many followed it.

The first actual recorded Christmas tree in America was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania. It took a while for everyone else to get on board. In fact, the New England Puritans declared most of the festive traditions to be “Pagan mockery” and even issued out fines to anyone who decorated.

Orson Christmas Tree
Christmas tree in the Orson Reynolds House around 1880. (Credit: Reynolds Genealogy)

As most stories go, all it took was someone REALLY cool to show some love for the tree before the rest of us followed suit. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert (who were very favored around the world) were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around none other than a big decorated Christmas tree. The rest of the world, wanting to be as fashionable as the current British royals, decided to embrace and adapt the tree tradition.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with Christmas Tree

So there you have it. From using plants to ward off evil spirits, to embracing the return of warm weather, the Christmas Tree tradition is here to stay.

Linnea Moran

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