In today’s modern holiday traditions, the Christmas tree is a prominent figure. There’s even a song all about it – “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How lovely are thy branches!” Most households have at least one, decorated and showcasing beautifully wrapped presents. How did the tree become such a symbol for this holy time of year?
During the cold winter months, people looked for ways to cheer up their homes and to celebrate the beginning of new life. Evergreens were brought into dwellings for this purpose, and they held spiritual and powerful significance. For instance, red holly berries and mistletoe were sacred because they were just a few of the vegetation that thrived during this time of year. The story of the Christmas tree evolved from this belief.
One of the most popular legends is the story of the English monk, Boniface, who was in Germany during the eighth century to spread the news of Christianity. He came upon Germans conducting sacrifices in front of an oak tree, which, as the story suggests, is sacred to the Viking god Thor. Boniface chopped down the tree to prevent the people from worshipping a false idol. A fir tree grew from the fallen oak and became the symbol of Christianity because it was a triangle shape that represented the holy trinity.
Bringing us to the Present
It wasn’t until around the 16th century that bringing the trees into the home started to become a thing in Germany. At that time, the firs were decorated with nuts, apples, and gingerbread. A century later, the decorations became more elaborate with gold leaf and paper decorations with candles. This is also when Christmas festivals started gaining popularity, especially for the royal courts.
The Puritans were especially strict about Christmas and traditions. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts made it a law that December 25 could only be celebrated by attending a church service. If people hung decorations or in any other “pagan” way observed the holy day, they could be fined or worse. Amazingly, Americans followed that stern example until the 1800s, after German and Irish immigrants started arriving and sharing their traditions.
But what really popularized the Christmas tree in American homes came from Great Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 1840s and 1850s. The queen’s mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, was German so she grew up with the tradition. In 1848, the royal family decorated a tree in Windsor Castle. When the image was illustrated in the London News of the queen, who was very popular, and the family around the decorated tree, the trend was born even across the pond. People couldn’t wait to follow the fad and by the 1890s Americans had added their own touch: While European Christmas trees tended to be around 4-foot-tall, Americans liked trees that went from floor to ceiling.
Today, Christmas trees are not only in most every home, they are in stores, along streets, and range from small to several stories tall.