The Christmas tree is an iconic symbol of the winter holiday season, but where did it come from? Let’s take a closer look at the history of this famous fir:
The evolution of the tree
The history of the Christmas tree begins thousands of years ago. Romans and other pagan cultures would decorate their homes with evergreen tree branches during the winter as a hopeful reminder of springtime and as decorations for celebrating the winter solstice, Why Christmas explained.
In Northern Europe, the use of evergreen trees began to take on Christian meaning. Many villages, particularly those in Germany, held plays on Christmas Eve at their local churches depicting Biblical events and parables. The sets for these plays included wooden or real trees dubbed “Paradise Trees” that symbolized the Garden of Eden. These trees were often adorned with apples as well as other festive decorations.
No story about the origins of the Christmas tree is complete, however, without a mention of the Riga Tree. According to Why Christmas, an evergreen tree was put up in the town square of Riga, Latvia, in 1510 to honor the holiday, and many people regard this fir as the first official Christmas tree.
Over the next couple centuries, the custom of putting a tree inside your home and decorating it with fruit, candies, nuts, candles and other delicacies spread across the Continent.
Moving across the Atlantic
We have our friends across the Atlantic to largely thank for popularizing the use of Christmas trees in the U.S. In 1848, Queen Victoria, who was very much in touch with the zeitgeist and possessing a flair for fashion and style, decided to set up a towering Christmas tree in Buckingham Palace. She did so because her husband, Prince Albert, had practiced the tradition in his home country of Germany growing up.
The stately tree was a dazzling sight, dripping with jeweled ornaments and delicate candies. The Illustrated London News published an illustration of the royal family standing around the tree, and the image set off a fervor to copy the trend in both the U.K. and the U.S. American leaders responded in kind, with President Benjamin Harrison erecting the first Christmas tree inside the White House in 1889. In 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge had a Christmas tree set up on the White House lawn by the District of Columbia Public Schools, thus creating the tradition of the “National Christmas Tree.”
“By 1900, one in five American families had their own Christmas tree.”
The custom had been established: By 1900, one in five American families had their own Christmas tree, according to the History Channel. And this year, nearly 100 million Christmas trees will be on display around the world.
Here are some of the most famous Christmas tree lighting ceremonies across the globe:
Trafalgar Square, London
Since 1947, a giant Christmas tree has been lit in London’s Trafalgar Square, in front of the National Gallery art museum. Alongside the square’s famous lion fountains, visitors can gaze at the sky-high tree’s shimmering display of lights. Each year, Norway sources the tree from its forest and gives it to the U.K. as a gift thanking the British for their help during WWII.
Notre Dame, Paris
Each Christmas Parisians will say “Joyeux Noël” as they gaze at a beautifully decorated tree outside of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Inside the cathedral the festive decor continues, while the rest of the City of Lights is stunningly decked out in a plethora of Christmas lights, wreaths, tinsel and candles.
Rockefeller Plaza, New York
Perhaps the most famous tree lighting ceremony of all, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center was first erected in 1931 by construction workers, according to real estate site 6sqft. The practice took off, and now the sparkling tree draws 125 million visitors each year along with millions more who watched the lighting on television.
Now that you know a little more about the history behind the Christmas tree, you can look at your own tree – real or fake – with a new appreciation. Happy holidays!