We are less than a week away from Christmas and for most of us, the Christmas spirit is high. Putting up the family Christmas tree usually marks the beginning and for many, the peak of the Christmas festivities. The Christmas tree has not always existed in the form we know it today. Two weeks ago, we took a look at the history of Santa Claus, and just like the myth of Santa Claus, the modern Christmas tree has been influenced by many traditions and combined with many cultures, specifically from the Germans. This week we are going to take to take a briefly look into the history and evolution of the modern Christmas tree.
The exact start of the use of an evergreen tree is not known. One of the first cultures to use evergreen trees during winter celebrations were the Romans. In the Roman tradition of the Winter solstice, Roman citizens would decorate their homes with evergreen braches during this time of the year because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen branches reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.
Early Christian celebrations with a tree were forbidden as many in the clergy had seen the use of a Christmas tree would take attention away from Jesus and his birth. However, this quickly changed as Christians during the Middle Ages began to accept a tree for Christmas celebrations. A legend had grown that said “…when Christ was born in the dead of winter, every tree throughout the world miraculously shook off its ice and snow and produced new shoots of green.” This is used as an explanation as to why trees were used for Christmas by Christians.
It was not until the renaissance, however, that there are clear records of trees being used as a symbol of Christmas. Some of the earliest records start in Latvia in 1510 and Strasburg (Germany) in 1521. These early trees were not known as “Christmas trees” but “Paradise Trees.” These trees were in referenced to the “Tree of Life” and the Garden of Eden which were added to the German Mystery or Miracle plays celebrated the feast day for Adam and Eve and many Christians on December 24th. The clergy would then decorate fir trees with fruits for the play. This tradition followed many people home and many Christians started to decorate their own trees.
This custom really did not take a hold in the United States until the 18th and 19th century when there was an influx of German immigrants into the United States. The idea of gift giving under the tree was brought over by German immigrants. Before the influx of German immigrants, many 19th century Americans saw the Christmas tree as a novelty idea. The first mention of the Christmas tree in American literature was in a story in the 1836 edition of The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, titled "New Year's Day," by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, where she tells the story of a German maid decorating her mistress's tree.
The same poem that brought us a modern version of Santa Claus, Clement Moore’s 1882 A Visit from Saint Nicholas, which was later retitled The Night before Christmas, also helped popularize the image of the family opening up presents under the tree on Christmas morning. During the Victorian era, candles were added to the tree to help represent the stars of the night winter sky. Before that period, it is widely believed that Martin Luther, the famous protestant reformer was the first to add lights to the Christmas tree. These candles are the predecessor the lights we use today (the electrical lights are less of a fire hazard, which came about in 1895 by an American telephonist, Ralph Morris.) The addition of lights coincided with the arrival of German ornaments which made their way from across the ocean to American trees.
Bringing the history of the Christmas tree closer to home, pioneer families in Kansas knew a very different Christmas than we know it today. From an undated early Union article, the author tells us, “Only a generation ago the pioneers in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa only knew a Christmas spruce, balsam or pine tree as a wonderful object. So rare it was.” The article goes on to explain that the willow trees for many along the banks of Prairie rivers were used as early Christmas trees. These accounts were recorded in the Daily Union from around the turn of the century. As more and more people started to come to the Kansas, Christmas trees became more readily available, as they were being brought from the east coast and used by the pioneers and their families.
The Christmas tree gained popularity over the next hundred years and has become one of the staple traditions during the holiday season.
The picture accompanied is one of the earliest renditions of an American Christmas tree which was explained in Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s short story, “New Year's Day." Credit to American antiquarian.org for the picture.