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Christmas Tree Tradition Through the Ages

By: Ellen Bell  

Decorated evergreen trees are a beloved symbol of the Christian holiday of Christmas. However, history tells us that conifer trees were worshipped by various societies long before Christians caught on to the idea.

Ancient Egyptians were one of the first known civilizations to treasure the conifer. When the winter solstice arrived, the Egyptians used to move green date palm leaves inside to symbolize life over death. When Romans celebrated their winter solstice festival, Saturnalia, they decorated their homes with greenery and lights as a way of giving thanks for a good season and praying for another upcoming season of plenty. It is also said that the Druids used evergreens in their winter solstice rituals. They positioned evergreen branches over doors to ward off evil spirits and prevent them from entering their homes.

The evergreen tree’s association with Christianity dates back about 500 years ago to the early 16th century. As the story goes, St. Boniface was traveling through the woods of what is today northern Germany, when he came across a group of pagans that were worshipping an oak tree. St. Boniface was so angered by this that he cut the oak tree down. It is said that in the oak tree's place, a conifer tree grew almost immediately. In amazement, St. Bonifice declared that this was a divine symbol of the Christian faith, and from that time forward, conifer trees began to be associated with Christianity. Eventually, German people began to bring coniferous trees indoors at Christmastime and decorate them with candles to celebrate the holiday.

When Prince Albert of Germany married Queen Victoria of England, he brought his German tradition of the Christmas tree to England. The first year he was in England, he obtained a fir tree and had it decorated for his family. The people of England were so impressed by this, that the idea caught on rapidly, and soon everyone in England wanted their own "Christmas tree" in their homes.

This custom slowly spread to the new world. Originally, the Puritans who founded our country banned Christmas worldly celebrations. In 1851, a Cleveland minister allowed a Christmas tree in his church and nearly lost his job because of it. During that same year, the tradition became part of the free market economy when a farmer named Mark Carr harvested and hauled two sleds of evergreen trees to New York City. In spite of the Puritans' early resistance to the tradition, the idea of Christmas trees flourished in the United States. By 1900, one in five American homes had a Christmas tree. Christmas tree farms sprang up and farmers could barley meet the demand.

In 1890, a man by the name of F.W. Woolworth introduced to the United States the idea of decorating a tree with glass ornaments. Blown glass ornaments had long been a tradition in Europe. From 1870 to the 1930s, Germans made the finest glass ornaments of that time. German glass blowers were reported to have had nearly 5,000 different molds for variations and different styles of Christmas ornaments. At the turn of the century, there were over one hundred small glass blowing shops in Europe that were all producing Christmas ornaments. Today there are only two German glass-blowing factories that are capable of producing the precision required for popular ornament collections such as Christopher Radko.

The popularity of the Christmas tree continues to grow. The National Christmas Tree Association reports that in 2006, over 28 million live Christmas trees were sold in the United States. The use of an evergreen tree has become such a traditional symbol of the holiday season that it sometimes transcends religious boundaries. Today, many non-Christians choose to display decorated evergreen tree in their homes during the month of December. Today, artificial Christmas trees have also become a popular choice for many families, which has even spawned a debate over which is better: real versus artificial. Whatever your choice, decorate it well and enjoy it; you are taking part in a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.


Ellen Bell works for The Christmas Tree Storage Shop, a retail website offering seasonal storage solutions for all your holiday decorations, including Christmas tree storage bags and artificial Christmas tree stand products.

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