The Christmas tree is one of our best-known and best-loved holiday traditions – but where did it begin? In fact, evergreens have been used in winter festivals and celebrations for thousands of years, even well before the birth of Christ.
In Egypt, an illness overtook the sun god Ra, resulting in the short, dark winter solstice; green palm fronds were hung to speed his recovery and triumph over death.
Also around the solstice, ancient Romans honored Saturn, god of agriculture, with a winter celebration called Saturnalia, which included gift-giving, feasting and festivities. Romans placed boughs of evergreen in their homes and temples to mark the end of winter and coming spring.
In far northern Europe, the Norse regarded evergreens as a gift from the god Baldur, which helped to ward off the dark and malevolent spirits that swept the land in the harsh, unforgiving winters.
The Druids decorated their sacred spaces with the plant as a symbol of everlasting life.
The Christmas tree tradition as we know it today, however, dates to 16th century Germany. It was there that the most devout Christians brought trees into their homes – or, sometimes, pyramids of wood decorated as trees, with evergreens and candles. Tradition, though perhaps not truth, holds that Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first person to light a Christmas tree.
As the story goes, Luther was walking home after a sermon, when through the dense evergreens around him, he caught the twinkling of stars in the winter sky. In awe of the sight – and eager to share it with his family – Luther rushed home and, to recreate the scene, wired a number of candles into his family’s tree.
Christmas trees didn’t make it to America until the 18th century, and even then, it would be more than a century before they caught on.
In fact, Christmas trees were probably confined largely to those areas with large numbers of German immigrants. There, community trees were commonplace as early as the mid-1700s. Elsewhere, they were seen as pagan symbols, unacceptable in Puritanical culture.
It was not until the 19th century that Christmas trees really caught on in America – and we have the English to thank.
In 1846, an illustration of the popular royal family gathered around a festively decorated tree appeared in the Illustrated London News; soon trees were all the rage throughout Britain, as well as on the East Coast of the U.S., where many looked to the English for the next “fashion.”
The age of the Christmas tree had begun.
Christmas Tree Facts
1. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition started in 1933.
2. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, is said to have brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House in either 1853 or 1856 (reports vary).
3. President Calvin Coolidge began the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, now held each year on the lawn of the White House, in 1923.
4. The Christmas tree industry employs some 100,000 people. About 98 percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farm, on more than 1,000,000 acres of land.
5. Around 77 million Christmas trees are planted each year.
6. About 36 million Christmas trees are produced each year; about 95 percent of those are shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree farms.
7. President Teddy Roosevelt, an avowed conservationist, banned the Christmas tree from the White House for environmental reasons. Roosevelt didn’t approve of the cutting of trees for decorations.
It’s said, however, that his son Archie defied this decree, smuggling a small tree into the White House and stashing it, decorated, in an upstairs sewing room.
8. The most lights lit at the same time on a Christmas tree is 194,672. This feat was accomplished on Dec. 10, 2010, by Kiwanis Malmedy and Haute Fagnes in Belgium.