The Christmas Tree
The first recorded reference to the Christmas tree dates back to the 16th century. The celebrating of Christmas with a real tree has been a tradition for over 400 years- the use of an evergreen tree as part of the Christian Christmas celebration started 400 years ago in Germany and spread to most of northern Europe by the 19th Century. The retail Christmas tree lot also dates back that far- in those times, older women would sell trees harvested from nearby forests. At one time, all Christmas trees were cut from natural stands (or straight out of the forest). As you can imagine, these wild trees looked nothing like today’s professionally grown and sheared trees.
In Strasbourg, Germany (now part of France), families both rich and poor decorated fir trees with colored paper, fruits and sweets. The tradition spread through Europe and the custom was brought to the United States by German settlers and by Hussein mercenaries paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. In 1804 U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Dearbom (now Chicago) hauled trees from surrounding woods to their barracks at Christmas.
A Philadelphia newspaper story printed in 1825 commented on decorated trees in German immigrant homes during the Christmas season. The popularity of the Christmas tree then proliferated. Charles Minnegrode, a German immigrant, introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1842. His tree was described as “splendidly decorated” with glided nuts, strings of popcorn, and lighted candles.
Franklin Pierce, our 14th President, was the first to bring the Christmas tree tradition to the White House. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge established the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn now held as an annual holiday observance. Since 1966, members of the National Christmas Tree Association have presented a beautiful, fresh Christmas tree to the President and first family. The tree is displayed each year in the Blue Room of the White House.
The first recorded Christmas tree retail lot was set up in 1851 by a Pennsylvanian named Mark Carr. He hauled two ox sleds loaded with trees from his land in the Catskills to the sidewalks of New York and opened the first retail lot in the United States. Eventually, in most U.S. households, the holiday season didn’t begin until the family went to the local lot or tree farm to pick out their tree. The whole family would decorate the tree and then wrapped gifts would be placed underneath it. On Christmas morning, the family would once again join around the tree waiting for the festivities to begin. The scent and aroma of the real tree were as much a part of the family unity as was the holiday season itself. The tradition continues to this day as more than 37 million families celebrate by bringing a natural Christmas tree into their homes to become the warm and glowing center of their Christmas celebration.
Decorating The Tree Tradition
The tradition of trimming the tree has long endured and is often the focal point of the Holiday. While references to the Christmas tree appeared in 16th century writings, a Legend goes back to the first Christmas. Three trees- an olive, a date and a pine- stood near the manager. The date and olive could bear their fruit as presents to baby Jesus, but the pine had no gift. To please the baby, the stars descended &, resting on the boughs, made a magical, glittering first Christmas.
Once thought to have special powers because it stayed green during the winter, the evergreen was first decorated with paper roses (a symbol for the Virgin Mary) and flat wafers with religious designs. Known as “Christbaum” trees became a common sight in 16th century German Christian homes.
Decorations rapidly became more varied- in the 18th century ornaments were edible and ranged from gold leafcovered apples, fruit and nuts to cookies and candy (and even gilded potatoes). Trees were even called “thesugartree in some locales. Candles used to illuminate the tree in the 18th century made the search for the various small toys hung on the tree that much more exciting.
So, the Christmas tree provides us with a long standing and universal holiday tradition which is also individual- as no two trees are exactly alike!
Tradition of a Fresh Cut Tree
The tree, used as a symbol of life, is a tradition older than Christianity and not exclusive to any one religion. Historians trace countless roots that grew into our present day custom of using a Christmas tree. Legends tell of the decorated tree in winter celebrations- long before there was a Christmas. Before there was a Christmas, Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year in December as a symbol of growing things and life’s triumph over death. Romans adorned their homes with evergreens during Saturnalia, a winter festival in honor of Saturnus, their god of agriculture. They trimmed trees with trinkets and topped them with an image of their sun god to celebrate Saturnalia. Druid priests and sorcerers hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees to celebrate the winter solstice festivities.
In the middle ages, the feast of Adam and Eve was held on December 24th. The Paradise tree- a fir tree hung with red apples- was its symbol. Although started in Rome in AD 337, the idea to celebrate Christmas on the twenty fifth was first suggested early in the fourth century and was due to the clever conceit of church fathers wishing to over-ride the December twenty fifth festivities of a rival religion that threatened the existence of Christianity.
Build Your Holiday Tradition of a Fresh Cut Tree
Choosing a real Christmas tree is a fun outing for the whole family and easy to do. A largely lost tradition of yesterday though, is the cutting of the Christmas tree from the family woodlot. However, even if you do not own a woodlot, you can still recapture this tradition by visiting a tag/ cut your own (TYO/ CYO) tree plantation, like Eby’s Evergreen Plantaion in Bristol IN, where you can select, cut and carry your own tree from the field to your car.
Today, 98% of trees are grown on plantations. These plantations may sell them to local lots, or act as tag/ choose and cut farms where people go to select, tag, and cut down their own fresh tree. Only real trees can provide the color, aroma and festive mood a real tree does. It’s a part of our holiday customs that engages not only our senses of sight, touch of home and smell, but also our sense of tradition, hope and good will. Balsam Firs were the most popular type of tree until 1955 when it was nudged out by the lush Douglas Firs and Scotch Pines. Today, buyers prefer the Firs: Fraser, and Douglas.
The enduring tree symbol- which is even older than Christianity and not attached exclusively to any one religion- remains a firmly established part of our holiday customs, engaging not only our sense of sight, touch, and smell but also our sense of family, spirit and tradition. Bring a real Christmas tree into your home to become a warm and glowing part of your holiday celebration and continue a long held custom. The tree evokes a mood of holidays from long ago, of the genial ghost of Christmas Past.