For most Americans, a tinsel-decked tree is a holiday essential. But why do we put decorated firs in our homes?
O Christmas tree
How did the custom start?
As with many Christmas traditions, its roots go back to pagan times. Some Northern European pagans believed that the sun was a god and that he went through a yearly period of ill health in winter. They put up evergreen boughs on the winter solstice, around Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year—the evergreens reminding them of all the greenery that would grow again when the sun god regained his strength and spring arrived. Ancient Egyptians followed a similar tradition, adorning their homes with green palm fronds to mark the return of Ra, a hawk-headed god who wore the sun as a blazing crown. And ancient Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples during Saturnalia, a winter festival in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Early Christian theologian Tertullian wasn’t a fan; in the 2nd century, he told his fellow believers to leave the plants and trees to the heathens, “over whom the fires of hell are imminent.”
When did Christians get on board?
That’s a matter of ongoing dispute. The Eastern European cities of Tallinn and Riga both claim to have hosted the first Christmas tree: Tallinn in 1441, Riga in 1510. Each city says the Brotherhood of Blackheads—an association of local unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners in Livonia (now modern-day Estonia and Latvia)—erected a tree in their town square over Christmas, danced around it, and then set it alight. Around the same time, medieval Germans were incorporating evergreens into their own Christmastime rituals, via the “Paradise Tree”: an apple-adorned fir that represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. But Christmas trees didn’t make it into the home until Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, supposedly experienced a very special yuletide “vision” in 1536.
What did Luther see?
The German theologian was taking a nighttime stroll through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he glanced up and was awestruck by the thousands of stars twinkling through the branches. The wondrous sight reminded him of Jesus departing heaven for Earth at Christmas, and Luther raced home to re-create the holy scene for his family—dragging a tree into their parlor and decorating its branches with lighted candles. Other Germans started covering their own Christmas firs with gingerbread, gilded apples, and other trinkets. Some preferred to deck a single yew branch with colored paper and ribbons, a ritual witnessed by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. “Under this bough,” wrote Coleridge, children and parents exchange presents “with kisses and embraces.”
When did the trees arrive in the U.S.?
They were brought to Pennsylvania by German settlers and may have even played a part in the Revolutionary War. Legend has it that as George Washington was crossing the Delaware River on Dec. 25, 1776, Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British were busy decorating trees and getting drunk. Suffice to say, they were in no state to fight the ensuing battle, and lost. But Christmas trees didn’t become de rigueur among fashionable society until they were granted the royal seal of approval. In 1848, the Illustrated London News published a sketch of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, a gift from her German consort, Prince Albert. The image was reprinted in Philadelphia’s Godey’s Lady’s Book, with the queen’s crown and Albert’s moustache removed to make it look more “American.” East Coast ladies went wild for the heartwarming scene—and Christmas trees became a staple of the American home.
What about decorations?
Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, was the bright spark who dreamed up electric Christmas tree lights. In 1882, not long after Edison had invented the light bulb, Johnson hung a string of 80 red, white, and blue bulbs on the tree in his New York City home and invited journalists to come and gawk at the illuminations. Some four decades later, on Dec. 24, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lit the National Christmas Tree, a 48-foot balsam fir decorated with 2,500 colored bulbs. Department of Commerce official Frederick Feiker had conceived the ceremony, hoping it would boost the burgeoning electricity industry. It did, and started a custom that’s been observed by the White House every year since—except during World War II, when the tree wasn’t lit, and in 1979, when only its topper was illuminated in honor of American hostages in Iran. Feiker was always confident of success. “If you get the president of the United States two years in succession to do a thing,” he said, “he will always do it.”
What do other countries do?
In Japan, you might find origami swans, paper fans, and wind chimes hanging from the branches; in Spain, a tree trunk is filled with goodies, like toffees, nougats, almonds, and dates, and children take turns whacking the stump with a stick to dislodge the treats. In Brazil, Christmas lands in summer, but some people cover pine trees with little pieces of white cotton to simulate falling snow. Traditions vary widely, but across the world, Christmas trees are a universal symbol of festive joy. “There’s a kind of glory to them when they’re all lit up,” said humorist Andy Rooney, “that exceeds anything all the money in the world could buy.”