Dec 27, 2021
Trumbull County Historical Society
Have you ever wondered about the history of the Christmas tree?
Would you believe that evergreens being used for celebrations can be traced all the way back to the Egyptians? Ancient peoples decorated their homes and places of worship with evergreens during the winter as a symbol of the plants that would return in the summer.
Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra and decorated their homes during the winter solstice to celebrate the return of summer. The Romans also decorated homes and temples with evergreens during the winter solstice to celebrate Saturn, the god of agriculture, as they knew their crops were returning soon. Druids decorated their temples with evergreens to represent everlasting life, while the Vikings saw these trees as the plant of their sun god, Balder.
Christmas trees as we know them today began in the 16th century in Germany. It is thought that the Christmas tree was a combination of two traditions. The first, the Paradise Tree, represented the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden and was a fir tree decorated with apples. The second, the Christmas Light, was a symbol of the birth of Christ as the Light of the World and was a small pyramid that was decorated with glass balls, tinsel and a candle on top.
When the two were combined, the fir tree was decorated with glass balls and a light was placed at the top. Another Christmas tree tradition that began in the 16th century is thought to have started with Martin Luther. He was walking home on a clear winter night and was mesmerized by the stars shining through the fir trees. He wanted to share this sight with his wife, so he cut down a tree, brought it inside and put small candles on the branches.
These days we use electric Christmas lights to decorate our trees that were invented by Thomas Edison and his assistants in 1880, although it did not become accepted publicly until Grover Cleveland lit the White House Christmas tree with electric lights in 1895. Even then, Christmas lights only were available to the wealthy until 1903, when General Electric began to sell pre-assembled kits.
While Christmas trees are a popular Christmas symbol around the world today, it was not always that way, especially in the early days of the United States. Christmas trees were a Christmas staple in Germany, but in the 19th century many Americans found the tradition odd.
The first record of Christmas trees in the U.S. was from the German settlements in Pennsylvania. They had community trees as early as the mid 1700s, but it was seen widely as a pagan tradition by many Americans up until the 1840s. Many governors and Puritan preachers condemned these traditions, and some went so far as to fine those who put up decorations.
If so many were against these “Pagan traditions,” what finally made the Christmas tree acceptable in American society? For this answer we can look to Queen Victoria. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert had a painting done of their family around a Christmas tree.
Queen Victoria was extremely popular, and whatever she did immediately became trendy not only in Britain, but also in affluent east coast American society. In the 20th century, Americans began decorating their trees with homemade ornaments, while German tradition called for dried fruits, nuts, popcorn and cookies. Soon, trees were being erected in town squares across the country and the Christmas tree became an American Christmas tradition.