Christmas Trees: History And Origins Of Why We Cut Down Trees For A Christian Holiday

By Jacob Shelton

(Nagel Auktionen/Wikimedia Commons)

While evergreens have long played a part in pagan solstice celebrations, it seems strange that every year, families go off in search of the perfect tree to chop down and stick in their living rooms. Thanks to a confluence of Germanic history, Charlie Brown, and Prince Albert, however, this arboreal holiday tradition is here to stay.

The Tree Of Knowledge And Martin Luther

Greenery has always been important to Christmas. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the English decorated their homes with holly and ivy, and it's believed that one precursor to the Christmas tree was a Christmas pole that churches decorated with vines and leaves like a winter maypoleHowever, the real beginnings of the Christmas tree likely lie in Germany, not England.

During the "Paradise Plays" of the 15th century, Germans used an evergreen fir as a stand-in for the Tree of Knowledge that doomed Adam and Eve. The tree was usually decorated with apples, tinsel, and gingerbread, which were tied to the leaves in the same way that we trim trees now. It's believed that audiences were inspired by these decorated trees, and by 1605, having your very own blinged-out Tree of Knowledge became the hottest trend all over Europe, although some local laws prohibited cutting down pine trees.

The oldest Christmas market, located in Alsace, is believed to have been the first place Christmas trees were sold, but before that, families were on their own. Those who didn't chop down trees built small pyramids out of wood in their homes and decorated them with lights and evergreen leaves. The 16th-century protestant monk Martin Luther was actually the first to light his family's tree with candles, which became a Christmas tradition until electric string lights were invented and we realized we didn't have to risk burning ourselves to death every holiday season.

(Unknown artist/Wikimedia Commons)

Bringing Christmas Trees To The English-Speaking World

Queen Charlotte is believed to be the first monarch who brought Christmas trees to England in the 18th century, but it's Queen Victoria who gets the credit for popularizing the tradition. In 1848, the Illustrated London News published an image of Victoria and her husband, the German Prince Albert, sitting around a fully trimmed Christmas tree with their family, and this single image started the English trend of decorating trees at Christmas.

Two years after the image of the royal Christmas tree dropped in England, it made its way to America in Godey's Lady's Book ... with some slight changes. Victoria's crown and Albert's sash were edited out of the image, turning them from royals into the all-American family and inspiring readers to buy their own trees. In 1860, the photo was published again in the lead-up to the Civil War, but this time, it ran alongside instructions to create a Christmas tree stand from a stoneware jar filled with sand and attach ornaments and holly. It only took another 10 years for the government to declare Christmas a national holiday.

(The Children's Museum of Indianapolis/Wikimedia Commons)

Real Versus Fake Christmas Trees

Fifty years later, President Coolidge lit the first national Christmas tree, to be followed by the now-famous tree at Rockefeller Center in 1933. Families around the country clamored to get in on the craze and filled their homes with real trees until the late 1950s, when aluminum trees became incredibly popular. These metallic trees featured tinsel leaves and a rotating color wheel, but they fell out of favor when the Charlie Brown Christmas Special debuted in 1965 and mercilessly dunked on the artificial trees.

By 1967, the sales of aluminum trees turfed out and sales of organic Christmas trees rose, but more natural-looking artificial trees eventually had their revenge. By 2018, 82% of Christmas trees were artificial.

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.