The history of Christmas Trees

Posted On October 21, 2006

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Every year my mother goes through her annual fret over her Christmas tree. She wonders whether she should keep her big tree, or get a small table top tree, which would be easier to put up and take down.

Easier for whom? You must understand that my dad and I, put mom’s tree up, string the lights, hang most of the ornaments, then take the whole thing down in January. Mom watches from the back of the room, her head tilted to one side, commenting that the tree is leaning just a bit, or that there’s a light out on that string in back. I know now what my dad always muttered under his breath as he untangled the strings of old lights. I find myself doing the same muttering. But after all of the lights and gold balls are hung, we all begin to unwrap Gram’s ornaments. She hangs the special ornaments, retelling the stories about each one, stories that we all love to hear.

Christmas trees are probably the most well known symbol of Christmas. They have been used for centuries, and can be found in all corners of the world. Christmas trees can be harvested from a tree farm or bought, boxed, at the store. They have been made of plastic, aluminum, or feathers. They are made in Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and grown in our own country. You can get the traditional green, or opt for a tree that is blue, white, silver, frosted, or even fiber optic.

The term “Christmas Tree” is a much beloved one, conjuring images of presents and snow and family. There is much history behind the Christmas tree, as well as many beautiful legends surrounding it.

Integrated into our modern Christmas tree customs are ancient Egyptian and Roman traditions, medieval pagan rituals, early Christian practices, and Victorian nostalgia. It is known that early Egyptians, on the shortest day of winter, would bring green palms into their homes to symbolize life’s triumph over death. In the middle ages Romans celebrated the Paradise Tree. Actors would portray the fall of Adam and Eve, with the evergreen standing for Paradise and man’s fall, but also the promise of salvation.

In the 16th century the first official Christmas tree was recorded at Strasbourg, France. The tradition of the Christmas tree was brought to the United States by Hessian soldiers hired to fight for England in the Revolutionary War. That tradition was further spread in the 1830’s by German settlers in Pennsylvania. In 1841 Prince Albert set the first English Christmas tree at Windsor Castle for the holiday pleasure of his wife, Queen Victoria.

As the history of the Christmas tree has been documented for years, many legends have arisen regarding the origin of the Christmas tree. One oft repeated legend tells the tale of St. Boniface, a missionary who spread Christianity throughour France and Germany in the 700’s. This story tells that St. Boniface came upon a group of folks who had tied a child to an oak tree as a human sacrifice to their pagan god, Thor. To save the child, St. Boniface felled this oak with one blow. As the tree split, a beautiful young fir tree sprang forth. St. Boniface used this instance to show these simple people how the branches of the fir made an arrow pointing to heaven, and that the fir is a holy tree, a symbol of the Christ Child and promise of eternal life. St. Boniface instructed them to take the evergreen into their homes and to surround it with gifts. This legend is said to be the origin of the Christian tradition of the Christmas tree.

Another beautiful legend of the Christmas tree depicts the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. As Joseph and Mary were pursued by Herod’s soldiers, who had instructions to capture and return the Infant Jesus to Herod, the Holy Family was often given shelter by various plants. When Mary became too weary to travel, they stopped at the edge of a forest. A gnarled old pine tree invited the Holy Family to rest within its trunk. The tree closed its branches and kept Mary, Jesus, and Joseph safe. Upon leaving, the Christ Child put His hand in blessing upon the staunch pine. The imprint of Baby Jesus’ hand remained as a sign of his gratitude. Legend says that to this day the print of Jesus’ hand is visible within the fruit of this evergreen, the pinecone.

These beautiful traditions and legends of the Christmas tree have been handed down through the ages. The Christmas tree remains the centerpiece of many holiday celebrations. In some homes, the tree is a gorgeous artificial tree, kept stored to be reused year after year. Some families choose to put up a real tree. Tree lots spring up on parking lots at early November. Some people trek to tree farms, hiking the forest to choose and chop down their own tree. For every real tree harvested, two or three seedlings are planted in its place. One acre of a tree farm produces enough oxygen for 18 people. The top Christmas tree producing states in the United States are Oregon, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, and North Carolina. Among the top selling varieties of trees are the balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, and Scotch pine. A natural tree brings into the home the true scent and atmosphere of Christmas.

The use of the evergreen tree as a holiday decoration isn’t even exclusive to Christian religions. Many Jewish families use the pine tree as a seasonal decoration, hanging snowmen or other winter symbols as ornaments. The pine tree is considered by many to be a “safe” symbol of the winter holidays. Many civic organizations decorate evergreens as a way of celebrating the season of Christmas in a secular fashion. The evergreen tree can be considered a symbol of endurance, a sign of nature’s beauty surviving the harsh cold of winter.

For centuries the evergreen tree has been a part of winter celebrations. This beautiful tradition, older than Christianity and not exclusive to any one religion, remains a firmly established part of our holiday custom.

For as long as I can remember, mom’s tree has been a part of my Christmas celebration. I guess even the mutterings, the tangled lights, and the overall craziness of setting up mom’s tree is part of my holiday preperation. I know that each year all of us wait to start unwrapping her special ornaments. We know some of the stories by heart, and each one of us has a favorite. Mom can flirt with the idea of a little tree, but we all know that it won’t happen. Christmas wouldn’t be the same for any of us without the big tree at our home.

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One Response to “The history of Christmas Trees”

  1. VideoJug

    Hi,

    Thanks for that great article about the history of christmas trees. I never realised that the first christmas tree was introduced in France!! Once the tree is up in your house, christmas is definitely here!

    Thanks again