The Christmas tree: an ancient tradition that’s traveled a rocky road

By Susan Gibbs

Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children they are all 30 feet tall.

Larry Wilde

All over the county wreaths are adorning front doors, candles are lighting windows, trees are going up in living rooms, and boxes filled with ornaments are coming out of storage.

Rich Maurer of Madison examines a Christmas tree at the Corner Store in Ruckersville

Children are watching impatiently as Dad hangs the lights and Mom pops corn to be made into a garland. In the background, Christmas music is playing and logs are aglow in the fireplace.

In another household, a savory stew is simmering in a crockpot while children sit at the kitchen table, gluing sticks together to make snowflake ornaments. In another, a woman savors the memories that come with each ornament as she hangs it; one reminds her of a special vacation, another of her baby’s first Christmas; another of a deceased loved one.

The recounting of family Christmas traditions could go on and on, as statistics indicate that last year, 31 million live Christmas trees, and nine-and-a-half million artificial Christmas trees, were purchased in the United States.

The question asked here is not how many individual Christmas-trimming traditions exist, but where and how did the custom of trimming begin?

The answer is long before the birth of Christ.

In the Northern hemisphere the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on either December 21 or 22, and is known as winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick, and weak. Evergreen boughs were hung with the hope that the sun god would regain his health, summer would return, and green plants would grow again.

With the passing of the solstice, that healing was believed to begin.

That tradition, in one form another, would endure until – and after – the 4th century, when December 25 was determined to be the date of the Christ-child’s birth. It is estimated that about 400 years later a connection was made between the evergreen tree and the endless life of Christ, but it would not be until the 16th century that the custom of decorating a tree began in the Rhine Valley, and then spread across Europe.


A German Christmas pyramid

Legend has it that in the early part of that century people living in Germany combined two customs that had been practiced in different countries. The Paradise Tree – a fir tree decorated with apples – represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Christmas Light – a small, pyramid-like wood frame decorated with evergreens and candles – symbolized the birth of Christ as the light of the world. Changing the two created the Christmas tree that we know today.

It has also been said that the first known written record of the Christmas tree dates from 1605, when a visitor from the city of Strasbourg, on the German-French border, wrote of a tree set up in a living room, decorated with paper roses, fruits and candies. And, that by the middle of the 17th century the custom of bringing a tree into the home and decorating it had become widespread in Germany.

The custom was late in coming to America.

To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. Governor William Bradford, who became governor of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts and served in that capacity for more than 30 years, attempted to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity such as Christmas carols, decorated trees, or any other joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event” that was Christ’s birth.

Bradford died in 1657, but in 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 – other than a church service – a penal offense, and people were fined for hanging decorations. This stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when an influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

But elsewhere in the country, celebrations were taking place.

Charles Minnegerode introduced the Christmas tree to Williamsburg society

Germans began to immigrate to the United States en masse at the beginning of the 18th century. Records indicate that 3,000 crossed the Atlantic to New York in 1709. In 1745, there were an estimated 45,000 Germans living in Pennsylvania alone.

While there are various claims of the “first Christmas tree in America,” most originate with German-Americans.

A diary written in 1747 by a resident of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, tells of a Christmas tree set up that year decorated with candles, apples and poetic verses.

Windsor Locks, Connecticut claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House. The “First Christmas Tree in America” is also claimed by

Easton, Pennsylvania, a Christmas tree was erected in 1816.

In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821, leading Lancaster to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Other accounts credit a German immigrant to Boston for being the first to introduce to America the custom of decorating a Christmas tree.

In 1842 German immigrant Charles Minnegerode, who taught at the College of William and Mary, introduced the custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas to Williamsburg society.

August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio is the first to popularize the practice of decorating a tree with candy canes.  In 1847, Imgard cut a blue spruce tree, had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments and candy canes.

But with Christmas trees still seen as pagan symbols not acceptable to most Americans, they were considered an oddity until 1850, when Godey’s Lady’s Book – a magazine published in Philadelphia that was then known as the “queen of the monthlies” – reproduced a woodcut of Great Britain’s royal family around their Christmas tree that had two years earlier been published in the Illustrated London News.

Queen Victoria was very popular with her subjects and what was done at court immediately became fashionable. When she wed the German Prince Albert in 1841he brought the custom of elaborately decorated Christmas trees to the marriage, and the custom became widespread throughout Britain, and whatever was fashionable in Britain was fashionable in East Coast American society.

Queen Victoria's Christmmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, updated for Gody's Lady's Journal in 1850

When Godey’s published the 1848 woodcut for an American audience in 1850, the copy was exact, save for the removal of the queen’s tiara and Prince Albert’s mustache, to remake the engraving into an American scene.

The Godey’s image became the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America, leading folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker to state, “In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850-60 than Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

In the United States, the Christmas tree had arrived.

In 1851 – the same year a Cleveland minister nearly lost his job for allowing a Christmas tree in his church – the Christmas tree market was born when a Catskill farmer hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all.

In 1856 Franklin Pierce became the first president to place a Christmas tree in the White House. The Godey’s image was reprinted in 1860 and by 1870 the erection of Christmas trees in American homes was becoming commonplace.

According to newspaper accounts of the time, the average tree was about four feet high, decorated with gingerbread in the shapes of stars, hearts, sheep, goats, houses and rings, all embellished with mixtures of starches and sugar, along with apples, raising and rosaries.

But the evolving glass-blowing industry in Germany was about to catch the eye of a young entrepreneur named F.W. Woolworth, and Christmas trees all across America would begin to glitter and glow.

One report has it that a traveling salesman trying to find a market for German glass ornaments stopped by the 28-year-old Woolworth’s store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in August 1880. Woolworth is said to have responded that Americans would not waste money on a product that didn’t “do” anything, but bought one case of 144 decorations, with the understanding that he would be refunded money spent for items that did not sell.

Forty years earlier, German firms that had been making glass barometers, canes, ointment bottles, goblets, bulls-eye glass window panes, eyes for stuffed animals and brilliantly colored marbles discovered that they could diversify into making molded glass ornaments.

Initially replicating fruits, nuts and other food items, they had branched out and were now manufacturing hearts, stars and other shapes that had been created out of cookies but that had the added dimension of a wide color palette enhanced by the luminosity of the glass itself. They were also creating molds of children, saints, famous people, animals and other forms – and reaching out to new markets.

Woolworth’s first purchase of glass ornaments, priced within the reach of ordinary Americans at a few cents each, sold out in less than a day. The following year he doubled his order, sold out again, and then began dealing with the importer in New York.

It is estimated, according to one report, that between 1880 and 1939 more than 500 million individual ornaments, valued at about $25 million, were sold in Woolworth stores across the country.

When World War II came to an end in 1945 people turned to the security of the Christmas celebration, so unchanging in a changing world, to get back on their emotional feet. Home Christmas trees were as large as they could afford.

By the 1960s a new world was on the horizon, and modernist ideas were everywhere. No decorations were needed for the “Silver Pine” tree was designed to have a light source under it, with colored gelatin “windows” that allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree.

Decorations became sparse. Glass balls paired with foil or wire made of gold, silver or brass created an elegant “modern” tree.

In the 1970s Victorian nostalgia made a comeback and manufacturers began to create more and more fantastic decorations. Some specialized in antique replicas, actually seeking out the original makers in Europe to recreate glass ornaments, real silver tinsels and pressed foil “Dresdens”.

Real trees were popular, but many preferred the convenience of the authentic-looking artificial trees that were being manufactured. If a room was big enough, a family could have a 14-foot artificial Spruce to enjoy with no watering, and no dropped needles – one that could be sprayed with a “real” Christmas tree scent that would fool the neighbors.

Today, themes for Christmas trees galore are published in magazines and on-line … The Starry Starry Night Tree … The Twilight Tree … The Snow Queen Tree … but regardless …

A Christmas tree in one’s home stands at the center of what makes Christmas special – the giving of gifts, whether they be extravagant items purchased for top dollar or a simple plate of cookies baked at home – to express affection or appreciation, and to share what we have.

In the privacy of our homes, we have the pleasure of being able to sit quietly, once the tree is up and trimmed, with presents piled beneath, gazing at the overall effect, taking a few moments to relish the peace and tranquility that it symbolizes, and to reflect on what is good in our lives as well as in the world in general.

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