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News The Christmas tree: A time honored tradition with historical roots

The traditions of the Christmas season gets passed down from generation to generation, sometimes without any thought at all. Each year, we deck the halls with lights, bake cookies for Santa, hang our stockings and erect a holiday masterpiece of pine draped in ornaments, but do we know how these traditions were formed?

Arguably the most recognized Christmas tradition, Christmas trees have become a staple of the holiday season, from the individual trees in our homes, to the annual lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York. We all do it, but why?

While my grandmother would tell us that by decorating a Christmas tree, we were giving a Christmas offering just as the wise men had done when they visited Jesus for the first time in the manger, my grandfather would scuffle at her and tell us that everyone knows you decorate the Christmas tree so Santa feels at home when he visits your house on Christmas Eve. Regardless of the reasons we were told as children, each year millions of people around the world take part in the tradition in some form or fashion.

While seemingly a western tradition, the practice of chopping down an evergreen and placing it in the middle of a common area indoors historically originated in Germany.

In the early 16th century, devout Christians in Germany are said to have brought decorated trees into their homes. It is a widely held belief that the 16thcentury Protestant reformer Martin Luther, was the first person to add lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, it is believed that he was so awed by the brilliance of stars, to recapture the scene for his family, he constructed a tree in the main room and wired its branches with candles.

At first, Americans were reluctant to partake in the German tradition and found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display in the United States was in the 1830s when German settlers in Pennsylvania carried on the tradition. The Pennsylvania German settlements are thought to have had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by Americans.

America was late to adopt many Christmas customs because to the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred and was a celebration of Christ's birth. William Bradford, the pilgrim's second governor, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event."

Americans were so against any celebration of the holiday outside of church services, in 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of Dec. 25, other than a church service, a penal offense; and people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

The popularization of Christmas trees can be traced back to 1846, when the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Victoria and her family were very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had been approved by the highest stature and quickly became a facade of mainstream culture in America. By the late 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S.

Starting in the early 20th century, Americans began decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German- American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. The tradition of stringing popcorn together to rope around the tree was born after it was discovered that when it was dyed with bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts, new life could be brought to the trees.

With the invention of electricity, candles were replaced with Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. It is believed that Thomas Edison's assistants came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees. The possibility of being illuminated throughout the night, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

The iconic Rockefeller Center tree was first displayed in 1931, during the Depression Era days. The very first tree was a small unadorned tree placed by construction workers at the center of their construction site. Two years later, another tree was placed there, this time with lights, and the tree has since become a centerpiece of New York City.

The tallest tree displayed at Rockefeller Center was a Norway Spruce in 1948 that measured 100 feet tall and hailed from Killingworth, Conn. Annually, the giant Rockefeller Center tree is laden with more than 25,000 Christmas lights.

Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since about 1850, and are grown in all 50 states. Needing six to eight years to mature, North Carolina, Washington, California, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, are the top Christmas tree producing states with the best selling tree varieties being Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir, and White Pine. Thirty-four to 36 million Christmas trees are produced each year and 95 percent are shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree farms.

The tallest living Christmas tree is believed to be the 122-foot, 91-year-old Douglas Fir in the town of Woodinville, Washington.

Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House and in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn. Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has given a Christmas tree to the President and first family.

In 1963, the National Christmas Tree was not lit until Dec. 22 because of a national 30-day period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1979, the National Christmas Tree was not lighted except for the top ornament in honor of the American hostages in Iran. In 1984, the National Christmas Tree was lit on Dec. 13 with temperatures in the 70s, making it one of the warmest tree lightings in history.

Because of environmental concerns, while in office, Teddy Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House. Tinsel was once banned by the government because it contained lead at one time, but is now made of plastic.

Christmas trees around the world

Regardless of the locale, the history of the Christmas tree can generally always be traced back to its German roots. German settlers who migrated to Canada from the United States in the 1700s, brought with them many of the things associated with Christmas we cherish today such as Advent calendars, gingerbread houses, cookies and Christmas trees.

While in most Mexican homes the centerpiece holiday adornment is el Nacimiento (Nativity scene), a decorated Christmas tree may be incorporated in the Nacimiento or set up elsewhere in the home. As purchase of a natural pine represents a luxury commodity to most Mexican families, the typical arbolito (little tree) is often an artificial one, a bare branch cut from a copal tree or some type of shrub collected from the countryside.

Christmas trees are imported to Greenland, because no trees live that far north. They are decorated with candles and bright ornaments.

Although Christmas falls during the summer in Brazil, sometimes pine trees are decorated with little pieces of cotton that represent falling snow.

Most people buy Christmas trees well before Christmas Eve, but it's not common to take the tree inside and decorate it until just a few days before in Sweden. Evergreen trees are decorated with stars, sunbursts, and snowflakes made from straw. Other decorations include colorful wooden animals and straw centerpieces.

Today, Norwegians often take a trip to the woods to select a Christmas tree, a trip that their grandfathers probably did not make considering Christmas trees were not introduced into Norway from Germany until the latter half of the 19th century. When Christmas Eve arrives, there is the decorating of the tree, usually done by the parents behind the closed doors of the living room, while the children wait with excitement outside. A Norwegian ritual known as "circling the Christmas tree" follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and then walk around it singing carols. Afterwards, gifts are distributed.

In Spain, the season is celebrated with a popular Christmas custom called 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.

Christian Americans, Europeans, Indians, Filipinos, and others living in Saudi Arabia have to celebrate Christmas privately in their homes. Christmas lights are generally not tolerated. Most families place their Christmas trees somewhere inconspicuous.

Of the small percentage of Chinese who do celebrate Christmas, most erect artificial trees decorated with spangles and paper chains, flowers, and lanterns. Christmas trees are called "trees of light."

For most of the Japanese who celebrate Christmas, it's purely a secular holiday devoted to the love of their children. Christmas trees are decorated with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold paper fans and lanterns, and wind chimes. Miniature candles are also put among the tree branches. One of the most popular ornaments is the origami swan. Japanese children have exchanged thousands of folded paper "birds of peace" with young people all over the world as a pledge that war must not happen again.

The theories and stories of how traditions such the Christmas tree originated have been incorporated into the holiday season and have become as fun and sacred as the traditions themselves. From a misfit tree with barely any branches in cartoon tales like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” to the annual lighting of the White House’s creation, Christmas trees represent our families’ traditions and history, whatever those may be.





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