The History of the Christmas Tree

December 18, 2013 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

What is the history of the Christmas tree? As far as common historical accounts are concerned, it all started with customs of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Scandinavians and other cultures that displayed evergreen trees, boughs and garlands during the winter. These decorations were symbols of everlasting life and reminders of the growth of spring, and they were also believed to ward off evil spirits, ghosts and illness.

The Christmas tree tradition as we now know it is thought to have begun in Germany in the 16th century when devout Christians began bringing trees into their homes and decorating them. Early decorations included nuts, fruits, baked goods and paper flowers. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther was the first person to add lights to the tree. During a walk home one evening, he was struck by the twinkling stars through the evergreen trees and decided to recreate that feeling at home for his wife and children by erecting a tree and decorating it with candles.

Victorian Christmas Tree

The Illustrated London News print of Queen Victoria and her family around the Christmas tree was revamped for America and featured in the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850.

In the early 19th century, the custom of the Christmas tree began to spread to European nobility. It wasn’t until 1846, however, that the tradition gained widespread public adoption. In that year, the popular British royals, Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, were sketched for The Illustrated London News standing next to a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle with their children. Being popular amongst the British people, the practice became very fashionable and soon spread to the east coast of the United States. Due to this rise in popularity, tree ornaments were manufactured in large numbers, and U.S. patents for electric tree lights (1882) and metal ornament hooks (1892) were issued.

Christmas tree on beach,

Underwood & Underwood. Santa Claus on beach with swimmers splayed around Christmas tree, 1927. Image courtesy of National Museum of American History Archives Center.

With their increasing popularity and acceptance, along with readily available ornaments and electric lights, Christmas trees began appearing in town squares and other public places and became commonplace in private homes.

Smithsonian Castle holiday tree, 2010.

Smithsonian Institution Castle holiday tree, 2010. Photo by Eric Long.

The most popular species of trees for the holidays are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, balsam fir, and white pine. Although artificial trees are popular with some, growing, living trees clean the air and water, trap atmospheric carbon, and provide wildlife habitat. When they are ready to be discarded, they can be turned into mulch and recycled back into the environment.

-Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens arborist

Entry filed under: Garden History, Trees. Tags: , , , , .

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