A brief look at the history and evolution of decorating Christmas trees at this time of year reveals they symbolize both hope and remembrance.
The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Ancient people of the northern hemisphere believed in the sun as a god. They believed winter was a consequence of that god becoming weak and ill. Plants, such as evergreen trees that stay green year-round, reminded them that their god of the sun would grow strong again and summer would return.
Foliage, that remained green throughout the year, held special value for many cultures and early civilizations. Some held the belief that evergreens would ward off evil and illness.
Ancient Egyptians worshipped a god, Ra. They made idols of Ra wearing a sun-disk in his crown. Before winter solstice, ancient Egyptians worried that their sun god, Ra, was growing weak and ill. They would celebrate at winter solstice by filling their homes with green palm leafs. To them, this symbolized strength over weakness or life over death.
Early Romans celebrated the winter solstice by having their Saturnalia feast. This was held to honor the god of agriculture, Saturn. Romans knew, after the winter solstice, days would get longer and sunnier. This, in turn, would result in an increase in agriculture. They knew this agriculture was a necessity to their survival. Romans would decorate their homes and temples with evergreen boughs to mark the occasion.
Ancient religious leaders would decorate their temples and places of worship with evergreen boughs as a symbol for everlasting life.
The first decorated Christmas Tree is believed to have been in Riga, Latvia in 1510. The first printed reference to Christmas trees appeared in Germany in 1531. Although controversial, Martin Luther, a 1500s seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, is credited for being the first to add lighted candles to a tree. Martin Luther was inspired to do this after he was awestruck by the beauty of the stars twinkling through the evergreens as he walked home on a winter’s eve. To demonstrate the beauty to his family, he wired candles to the branches of a tree set up in the family’s home.
In terms of history, America was late to accept the traditional Christmas tree. Christmas trees were viewed as pagan symbols by most early Americans. Christmas was viewed by early Americans as sacred. Influential men such as William Bradford and Oliver Cromwell worked hard to quash what they deemed “pagan mockery” of the holiday. The General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law in 1659 making an observance of December 25, other than an official church observance, a penal offense. People would be fined for displaying decorations. The restrictions continued until a large influx of German and Irish immigrants in 1800s overcame the solemnity.
Records indicate German settlements in Pennsylvania had community trees as early as the mid-1700s having brought the tradition from their mother country. The first record of a Christmas tree being publicly displayed was from the 1830s by the German settlers. They are believed to have had them erected in their homes much earlier, though.
In 1846 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched standing around a Christmas tree with their children. This was published in the Illustrated London News. Queen Victoria was very popular and what was done during her reign became immediately fashionable not only in Britain, but around the world.
Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United states since about 1850. By the late 1800s, Christmas trees were gaining popularity in America. Americans would decorate their trees using mostly homemade ornaments. Apples, nuts, cookies, and popcorn were popular decorations for the Christmas tree.
In 1856 Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, was the first President to place a Christmas tree in the White House. President Coolidge started the tradition of having a National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923. In 1963, the National Christmas Tree was not lit until December 22nd because of a national 30-day period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy. Starting in 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has given a Christmas tree to the President and first family.
The use of electricity brought about the development of Christmas lights. Christmas tree lights were first mass produced in 1890. Christmas trees began being displayed in town squares and other public places in America. In 1900, large department stores started to erect big illuminated Christmas trees. Today, nearly all large departments stores erect one.
The Christmas tree tradition has a long history. The evolution spans many cultures and civilizations. Having a Christmas tree in one’s home is now a very popular tradition.