What is the history behind the Christmas tree?

Posted by Luke Helsel on Jul 20th 2021

What is the history behind the Christmas tree?

How did the modern day Christmas tree originate?

Why do we set up Christmas trees to celebrate Christmas around the holiday season? Well to answer that question we need to take a deep dive into history to explore the origins of the Christmas tree, in addition to the first documented use of an evergreen tree. Let's begin.

Egyptian worshipping Ra

In ancient Egypt, Egyptians worshipped many gods. One of these gods was named Ra, he was the Egyptian sun god. During the winter months, these Egyptians believed that the cooler weather they were experiencing was caused by the sun god being ill. Around December 21st, Egyptians would set up palm branches in their homes to signify this illness that Ra had as being cured. December 21st is the day that the northern hemisphere has its' winter solstice; or the shortest day of the year, which meant summer was coming soon.

In the early days of Rome, the Romans did something very close to this, the Egyptians could've passed this tradition on to their northern neighbors. Instead of celebrating Ra during this time, the Romans celebrated their god of agriculture: Saturn. They decorated their homes and places of worship with evergreen boughs. Romans did this for a similar reason that the Egyptians did it, it was the Winter solstice and the green boughs signified that their farms would be green and full of crops soon. 

Interestingly enough, further north in Scandinavia Vikings did a very similar practice. Except the Vikings decorated their homes and places of worship with fully grown evergreen trees. They did this to worship their sun god, Balder. They also created the tradition of the 12 days of Christmas, a tradition they called 'Yule.'

These very early instances of evergreens or other green plants being used around December 21st are well documented. However, there's a pretty significant gap in time from the latest usage of evergreens by the Vikings, to the first documented usage of a Christmas tree in the context of celebrating Christmas. This first well documented use of a Christmas tree to celebrate Christ's birth occurred in the town of Tallinn, Estonia in 1441. We can speculate that late Vikings settled in this area of the baltic sea and passed their traditions on to early Estonians during this time period. 

We can also speculate that it was the Estonians that brought the tradition to early Germans. This is where the practice gets very popular. Germans began to really popularize this practice sometime in the 16th century, this is also when Christmas trees started to get so many unique decorations! Early decorations of Christmas trees include apples, nuts, and shiny foil. 

The famous German Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was the pioneer behind putting lights on a Christmas tree. One night, Luther was outside writing the sermon for his upcoming church service. During this time Luther observed a patch of Evergreen trees that had stars shining through them and decided that he should replicate this observation with the Christmas tree he and his family had. He rushed home and decided to wire candles on his tree, from there the tradition began of putting lights on Christmas trees. We don't recommend you put candles on your Christmas tree though.

Martin Luther early Christmas tree

This tradition of decorating an evergreen as a Christmas tree spread very quickly around Germany. German immigrants to the 13 colonies brought this tradition over in the early 17th century. More specifically, Christmas trees arrived in North America in the mostly German Pennsylvania colony.

Christmas trees weren't really that big of a hit in the 13 colonies. In fact, most conservative groups called the decorations a pagan tradition that should be stopped! Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas trees and Christmas carols in the 1650's and threatened a fine of 5 shillings for anyone found singing carols or setting up a Christmas tree. For context, 5 shillings is about the amount you would earn from 3 days of skilled labor in 1660. 

As you know, there was a point where this penalty was uplifted. In 1846, Queen Victoria published a newsletter that showed the queen and her husband, Prince Albert around a fully decorated Christmas tree with their children. Following this, the now established United States took that as a sign to loosen up a little regarding the tradition of using Christmas trees to celebrate Christmas and the practice spread like wildfire.

Queen victoria with a Christmas tree

 By 1890 the United States was importing thousands of German Christmas tree ornaments into the country. The value of this trade totaled over $25 million in 1890 or $750 million in today's money. This huge boom attracted many young entrepreneurs to the industry including Edward H. Johnson, who was the inventor of modern day Christmas lights and a colleague of Thomas Edison. 

Many German immigrants (including my own family members) began to flock to the United States in hopes of growing Christmas trees to sell to North American customers.

The origin story of the Christmas trees that we set up today is one that is long and rich with history, we hope that you enjoyed this bit of information!