I’ve seen a lot of Christmas trees already this year. I love driving by a house at night and seeing a lit tree in the window. Additionally, I attended a Festival of Trees in Saginaw. This fundraiser put on by a local organization seeks donations of decorated trees from area businesses. Visitors then purchase raffle tickets and place them in the trees they hope to win. Unfortunately I didn’t win any of my favorites, but the wide variety of tree decorations (everything from typical Christmas decorations, to religious themes, to outdoorsy decor, and even on covered in Duck Dynasty gear!) caused me to reflect on the origins of the tree. I mean, there’s a big difference between 16th century candle-lit trees to the Duck Commander crew!
Ancient civilizations believed that any plant that remained green during the winter months was extra special. These peoples also celebrated the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21 or 22, depending on the calendar year, as an end to the sickness of the sun, which caused a shortening of days and a lengthening of night. During these celebrations they would use these green plants (evergreens) as decoration, and as a way to ward off evil during the dark months.
These practice, and the meanings behind them changed with the arrival of Christianity, but they did not disappear. Groups, particularly Germanic peoples, continued to use evergreens in their decorations for the new Christmas holiday, thus blending the two celebrations together.
As for the practice coming to England and America, well that took a while. See, many devout, Puritans believed that the Christmas tree made a pagan mockery of a seriously religious ceremony. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria of England, brought the tradition of the Christmas tree her realm. And, since everyone wanted to do everything in the style of Victoria, the practice spread (When speaking of something being Victorian in style or of the Victorian era, it refers to Queen Victoria). And since Americans liked to copy English style and fashions, the tradition made it across the pond. And, in true American style, the roughly 4-foot tree that was popular in England was too small here. Americans wanted their trees to reach from floor to ceiling.
So, there you have it folks! The history of the Christmas tree, in a nutshell. For a slightly more complete story you can visit the History Channel website here. This year, while you’re sipping cocoa in front of a perfectly lit tree, take a moment to think about how far your tree has come.