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Learn the History of Christmas Trees (16th Century to Today)

Christmas trees are mainstream today in North America, but it wasn’t always that way. The fascinating history of Christmas trees goes back to ancient Egypt and Rome and continues with the German tradition of candlelit pine trees first brought to North America in the 1800s. Welcome as we visit Christmas tree history in today’s article.

How Did Christmas Trees Start?

Throughout history, plants and trees that remain green all year have had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the holiday season with evergreen trees and branches, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over doors and windows. It was believed that the branches would keep away witches, ghosts, and illness; really methods to eliminate stress.

In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year (the winter solstice) is typically on December 21 or December 22. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came yearly because the sun god had become weak. They celebrated the winter solstice because it meant that the sun god would begin to get well again. Evergreen boughs symbolized all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong, bringing back summer.

In Northern Europe, the secretive Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, decorated their temples with evergreen foliage as a symbol of everlasting life. Likewise, the Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the unique plant of the sun god Balder.

Origin of Christmas Trees – Germany

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we know it. In the 16th century, devout German Christians built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles. It is widely believed that the 16th-century protestant monk Martin Luther first added lit candles to a tree. Walking back home one winter evening, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he placed a tree in his home and laced its branches with lighted candles.

Who Brought Christmas Trees to North America?

Most 19th-century North Americans found Christmas trees odd. The first record of a tree being displayed was in the 1830s by German settlers in Pennsylvania; even as late as the 1840s, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and, as a result, not accepted by most Americans.

In 1846, the famous royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were documented in the – London News, standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her followers. As a result, what the royal family did immediately became fashionable. The Christmas tree had arrived and along with it a recognized symbol of Christmas spirit.

Queen Victoria and Family Around Christmas Tree
An illustration from a December 1848 edition of the Illustrated London News shows Queen Victoria and her family surrounding a Christmas tree. – Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

By the late 1800s, Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was more accepted around the U.S. Europeans typically used small trees about four feet in height. At the same time, Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.

As we entered the 1900s, Americans decorated their trees mainly with homemade ornaments. German-Americans continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn was introduced after being dyed bright colours and interlaced with berries and nuts. The introduction of electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow. With this, prelit Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home safely became an American tradition.

Christmas Trees Around The World

Christmas Trees in Canada

German settlers migrated to Canada from the United States in the 1700s. They brought many cultural items connected with Christmas, such as Advent calendars, gingerbread houses, cookies, and Christmas trees. So when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, the Christmas tree became an adopted tradition throughout England, the United States, and Canada.

Christmas Trees in Mexico

In most Mexican homes, the principal holiday adornment is el Nacimiento (Nativity scene). However, a decorated Christmas tree may appear in the Nacimiento or be set up elsewhere in the home.

Christmas Trees in Great Britain

The Norway spruce is the traditional tree used to decorate homes in Britain. This evergreen was a native species in the British Isles before the last Ice Age, and was reintroduced before the 1500s.

Christmas Trees in Greenland

Christmas trees are imported, as no trees live this far north. They are decorated with candles and bright ornaments.

Christmas Trees in Brazil

Although Christmas falls during the summer in Brazil, pine trees are creatively decorated with little cotton pieces representing falling snow.

Christmas Trees in Ireland

Christmas trees are decorated with coloured lights and tinsel. Some people favour the angel on top of the tree, others the star. The house is decorated with garlands, candles, holly, and ivy. Wreaths and mistletoe are hung on the door.

Christmas Trees in Ukraine

Christmas is the most popular holiday in Ukraine, celebrated on December 25 by Catholics and on January 7 by Orthodox Christians. During the Christmas season, people will decorate fir trees and have large celebratory gatherings.

Christmas Trees in Spain

A popular Christmas custom is Catalonia, a lucky strike game. A tree trunk is filled with goodies, and children hit at the trunk, trying to knock out the hazel nuts, almonds, toffee, and other treats.

Did I miss anything?

Now I’d like to hear from you! Do you know of any other worldwide Christmas tree traditions? Do you know of any other peculiar customs?

Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below right now.

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