The History of the Christmas Tree

The National Christmas Tree in Washington, DC, with the White House in the background

If you came here from another planet, it might seem like a strange custom.

People go outside, cut down a tree and then put it up in their living rooms.

Not only that, they decorate it – and put presents under it.

Of course, virtually everyone here on Earth knows what a Christmas tree is – in countries where large numbers of Christians live, at least.

But did you ever wonder why the custom of putting up a Christmas tree exists – or where it came from?

Believe or not, the history of the Christmas tree goes back before Christianity even existed.

But here in the United States, Christmas trees didn’t become popular until the mid-1800s.

Before that, they were considered “pagan” by many Christians.

In fact, the Christmas tree has its roots in many pre-Christian celebrations in Europe.

Historians say many of the people who lived in Europe before Christianity existed believed that evergreens had magical powers.

After all, the evergreens remained green when all the other plants withered and died.

According to historians, the Druids of northern Europe decorated their temples with evergreen boughs because to them, evergreens symbolized everlasting life.

And historians say the Romans decorated their homes with clippings from evergreen shrubs to celebrate a holiday called Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was celebrated at the winter solstice, which happens right around December 21st.

(The winter solstice is the day of the year with the fewest hours and minutes of sunlight.)

Obviously, that’s just a few days before December 25th.

So it’s easy to see how traditions from pre-Christian solstice celebrations became incorporated into the observance of Christmas.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the first written record of a decorated Christmas tree dates back to the year 1510 in Riga, Latvia.

(Latvia is a small Eastern European country along the east coast of the Baltic Sea.)

According to the association’s website, some Latvian men decorated a tree with artificial roses, put it up in a marketplace and danced around it.

(Roses are said to be symbols of Mary, Jesus’ mother.)

Then, they set the tree on fire.

Please don’t try this at home – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Many historians say the tradition of bringing evergreen trees into the home as part of the Christmas celebration began in Germany in the 1500s.

And it wasn’t until German immigrants started coming to the United States in the mid-1800s that Christmas trees became popular here.

(In fact, according to one historical account, the Puritans of Massachusetts passed a law in 1659 that forbade Christmas trees and any other form of Christmas celebration other than prayer in church.  Obviously, that law no longer exists.)

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the trees were first sold commercially in the United States in 1851.

Today, the group says 25 million to 30 million Christmas trees are sold every year.

And the way people decorate their Christmas trees has evolved as well.

Back before there were electric lights, historians say people would use things such as apples, nuts and marzipan (a sweet made of almonds, egg whites and sugar).

People also decorated trees with strings of popcorn.

According to the Christmas tree association, glass ornaments were introduced from Germany in the late-1800s.

Today, it’s unusual to go into a Christian home in the United States and not find a Christmas tree at this time of year.

But historically, it’s a relatively recent addition to the Christmas celebration — even if its roots go back thousands of years.