Although Christmas trees have become staples in most homes during the holidays, the fact is that evergreen plants and trees have been used for centuries to decorate homes. Ancient people hung evergreen boughs over doors and windows throughout the year. In some cultures, it was believed the evergreens kept away witches, ghosts, illness and evil spirits.
According to the History Channel, there were other reasons to adorn a home with greenery. Ancient cultures often celebrated the winter solstice, which usually falls on December 21 or 22 and is the shortest day of the year. On this day, people decorated their home with evergreen boughs to celebrate that the days would now grow longer. In ancient Egypt, green palms and papyrus reeds, symbolizing triumph of life over death, were used around the winter solstice. Romans during this era used evergreen boughs to celebrate that fields would soon be green and fruitful while Druids used evergreens to symbolize everlasting life.
It was during the 16th century that the Christmas tree tradition we recognize today was established. Christians began bringing in evergreen trees, decorating them, while others created pyramids of wood that they decorated with evergreen boughs. Legend has it that Martin Luther was the first to light a tree using candles after seeing stars twinkling through evergreens during a night walk.
The Christmas tree tradition in America was slower to take root, however. Up until the mid-19th century, Christmas trees were viewed as an oddity. The first mention of trees being used to celebrate the holiday occurred during the 1820s in the German communities of Pennsylvania. However, there are records that indicate as early as 1747, German immigrants decorated a wooden pyramid as a community tree that was adorned with candles. Yet, through the 1840s, Christmas trees were viewed as pagan symbols in the rest of the country.
It is important to note that the Puritan leaders in America viewed Christmas celebrations as unholy. There is record of William Bradford of New England, who served as the pilgrim’s second governor, writing that he was trying to “stamp out pagan mockery” of the observance of Christmas. He was also known to penalize any “frivolity” revolving around the holiday. In fact, in 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts made celebrating on December 25 a penal offense and included fines for hanging decorations. Until an influx of German and Irish immigrants in the 19th century, those laws remained.
Puritan rule slowly took a backseat to changes in culture around Christmas and a sketch in “illustrated London” in 1846 led to the end of laws related to Christmas celebrations. Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, who was German, were drawn with their children standing around a Christmas tree. One of the most popular British royals, what happened in Queen Victoria’s court quickly became popular and her embracing the culture of her husband made Christmas trees fashionable.
Christmas tree popularity grew and, by the 1890s, German ornaments were arriving in the United States. However, the trees used in this country were far larger, extending from floor to ceiling, while European cultures preferred shorter trees around four feet in height.
Tree decorations have also changed over the years. In the early 20th century, German Americans used apples, nuts and marzipan cookies while others created handmade ornaments. Stringed popcorn dyed bright colors and mixed with berries as well as nuts were very popular. Once homes had electricity, Christmas lights were added to trees which became a holiday tradition in many homes around the world.
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