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Why we have Christmas trees

Viggo Johansen - The Skagen Painters: "Silent Night"
Viggo Johansen - The Skagen Painters: "Silent Night"

It’s a holiday tradition for families around the world -- putting up the tree. But why do we do it?


The Christmas tree is a holiday tradition to families of all backgrounds -- around the world. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you probably have some sort of tree -- because let’s face it, it’s just nice to have, right?

The tree really lights up your living room. It brings the holiday season to life in your home. It marks a gathering point for your holiday festivities and is a true symbol of your holiday season tradition.

But why do we drag the box out, sort through the ornaments and fix the tree stand every year? The tradition goes back -- way back.

Origins of the Christmas tree

Long before the start of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as we, in present day, decorate our homes during the holiday season with pine, spruce, and fir trees -- ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

There are many examples of this through ancient history, from the Egyptians to the Romans -- evergreens were a prominent fixture of special occasions.

Fast forward to 16th century Germany, the first known implementation of the modern Christmas tree. Here’s a bit more from History.com:

Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747.

But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

So what changed? Enter the Royal Family

More from History.com: In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.

An engraving published in the 1840s of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert created a craze for Christmas trees.
An engraving published in the 1840s of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert created a craze for Christmas trees.

By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.

The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end.

With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.


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