Published on 11/24/97

Modern Christmas Trees Have Long, Rich History

A tree is part of many people's holiday season. Cutting your own tree, selecting one at the local
lot or bringing in a living tree are all part of modern family traditions.

To many, decorating a tree marks the beginning of the holiday season. Everyone in the home
senses the aroma, beauty and special adventure of having a tree. But in America, it wasn't always
widely associated with the winter holidays.

The roots (no pun intended) of tree use can be traced back before the birth of Jesus Christ to early
Egyptians who would bring palms indoors as symbols of eternal life. Ancient Jewish religious
feasts included decorations made of tree boughs.

In the Western world, most experts think our holiday use of trees derives from Rome. The
Romans exchanged tree boughs with friends for luck, and they celebrated their winter festival by
decorating the house with tree boughs and greenery. They paraded trees around with candles and
trinkets attached to the branches.

Many Christian traditions were borrowed from older pagan celebrations. Pope Gregory I, around
A.D. 600, told churchmen to encourage harmless folk customs, such as the use of greenery and
trees, where they could make Christian interpretations.

In the 700s, St. Boniface encouraged pagan nature worshipers to stay out of the dark forest and
take a tree indoors to worship in the light and warmth of the one true God.

Across Europe, people used tree-based folk tales to teach children about the celebration of
Christ's birth. The evergreen tree's symbolism of eternal life was strong.

Martin Luther may have begun the modern Christmas tree tradition in Germany around 1500. It
was said that Luther was walking on a bright, snow-covered, star-lit night, pondering the birth of
Christ. He was enthralled by the evergreen trees, the stars and the landscape.

Luther took a tree inside and put candles on it to try to represent the majesty he felt about Christ's
birth. By the early 1600s, many German towns were celebrating Christmas with elaborately
decorated trees.

German mercenaries fighting for the British in the Revolutionary War brought the Christmas tree
tradition to the United States.

But old Puritan doctrine banned any celebration at Christmas. Holiday festivities around a
decorated tree took a while to become established in America.

In the 1840s, the use of Christmas trees across the Christian world exploded. From the royal
family in England to the elite of America, Christmas trees were fashionable.

In 1851, the first retail tree lot was set up on a sidewalk in New York City and sold out quickly.

The White House led the way to holiday trees. The first U.S. President to show off his White
House tree was Franklin Pierce. Benjamin Harrison declared his White House tree to be part of
an old-fashioned American tradition in 1889.

By the 1880s, the Christmas tree market was large. Large numbers of wild trees were harvested
from the native forests.

Theodore Roosevelt decided that for the sake of forest conservation the White House would not
have a Christmas tree. But his two sons sneaked a small tree into their room and were caught, to
their father's embarrassment.

Today, the Christmas tradition that came to this country as "German toys" has multigenerational
and multicultural identity. The sense of identifying holiday trees with family and friends is
socially important.

Take a moment to truly look at your tree this year and see the history in it.

Kim Coder is a forester with the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.