The Christmas Tree — A Very Brief History

By Alex Miller

As we pull our bins of tradition out from the basements, attics, and other cool, dark corners of our living spaces, we start to wonder how we ended up doing the things we are doing. As you decorate your trees this year, it might be nice to understand where that comes from.

Evergreens have consistently been used to celebrate throughout history. Festivals and feasts were held for the winter solstice. In ancient Egypt, it denoted that the sun god Ra was recovering from illness. In ancient Greece, the festival Saturnalia was held in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture. The evergreen with its uncompromising green was employed as a remembrance and hope of a warmer time.

The first instances of trees being used for Christmas come from what is now Germany in the 1500's. Germans would bring evergreens into their homes, and if trees were scarce, they would bring in wood and decorate it with wreaths.

It is widely rumored that church reformer Martin Luther, inspired by the stars, lit his tree with candles. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought the tradition to the Americas. It was not widely accepted by the Puritanical culture of what is now the United States for its ties to pagan culture. It wasn’t until 1846 when Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree that it became the fashion in East Coast homes to have one. Christmas trees are now grown in all 50 states (it takes roughly 6–10 years for a tree to mature).

It was Edward Johnson, Thomas Edison’s assistant, who came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees in 1882. Mass-produced Christmas tree lights didn’t come into existence until 1890.

From all of us a TreePeople, enjoy your favorite tree this holiday season. We look forward to planting more with you when it’s safe to do so!

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TreePeople is Los Angeles’ largest environmental nonprofit movement. We inspire, engage and support people to take responsibility for the urban environment.