Here’s Where the Christmas Tree Tradition Started
Nothing says ‘tis the season like decorating a Christmas tree with tinsel, bows, and keepsake ornaments passed down through generations. But if you stop and think about it for a minute, it is fairly strange to cut down a tree, drag it inside, decorate it, hope the neighbors fawn over it, and then take it all down and drag it to the curb. So where did this tradition come from? Turns out, we have the Egyptians to thank for the practice—and the Romans, the Celts, and Martin Luther, too.
When the ancient Egyptians weren’t building pyramids, they were celebrating the winter solstice and the sun God Ra. When Ra would disappear in winter—as suns tend to do—the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes to celebrate his return at the solstice, according to History.com. The greenery served as a reminder that while it was the dark of winter, spring and summer would be coming soon enough.
The Romans ran with the idea, bringing evergreens into their homes to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, and to mark the solstice, which is the shortest day and longest night of the year, which typically falls around December 21. Up in Scandinavia, the Vikings thought evergreen trees were gifts from the sun god, Balder. Over in Northern Europe the druids, who were the mysterious priests of the Celts, used evergreens to mark the solstice, too.
While some say the first Christmas tree was in London in 1444, others say that Christmas trees as we know them are all thanks to the Germans. Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, helped re-ignite (pun intended) interest in Christmas trees. As the story goes, back in 1536, Luther was walking through a forest near his home in Germany, when he happened to catch a glimpse of stars through a pine tree's branches. This inspired him to bring a tree inside and decorate it with candles to remind children about the wonders of heaven. Author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe helped further popularize Christmas trees in Germany, by writing about them in his (not-at-all-Christmassy) novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774.
When German settlers made their way to the U.S. they brought the concept of Christmas trees with them. According to History.com, some German communities had trees as far back as 1747, but until as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans. It wasn’t until the practice was common in England, that it took off in the U.S., too.
While some credit Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, with bringing the Christmas tree to England back in 1840. Others say it was so-called good Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, who deserves the recognition. History Today tells the story of Charlotte, who was German by birth and had grown up with a Christmas tree, thanks to Martin Luther. When she came to England, she brought the tradition with her, setting up the first known English Christmas tree in Windsor Palace in December 1800, unveiling the ornament-strewn tree at a party for all the kingdom’s best families. After that party, all the upper class families insisted on Christmas trees, and soon enough the practice trickled down to the masses, thanks to magazines like Cassell’s Magazine and The Graphic that described the royal Christmas. When the Illustrated London News showed the beloved Queen Victoria and Prince Albert standing around a Christmas tree in 1846, the practice became commonplace, and that’s when it spread to East Coast society members in the U.S., too.
From there, the practice spread across the U.S. with people decorating trees with candles and marzipan and ornaments made by hand or imported from Germany, who had the most practice at the craft. The first White House Christmas tree was put up by Benjamin Harrison in 1889, but was mostly just for his family to see and use.
WATCH: How to Choose a Christmas Tree
Electric Christmas tree lights were invented in 1882, by Edward H. Johnson, the vice president of Edison's Electric Light company, who earned the title "Father of the Electric Christmas Tree." Grover Cleveland brought the electric lights to the White House Christmas tree in 1895. In1923 President Calvin Coolidge lit the National Christmas tree with about 3000 lights.
In 1931, construction workers put up the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, but it wasn’t until 1933 that the tree as we know it became an annual city tradition—although the tree was blacked out during World War II as part of the country’s wartime safety precautions. Rockefeller Center made up for it the next year, though, with “six ultraviolet light projectors to make 700 fluorescent globes on that year's tree appear to glow in the dark.”
From there it’s pretty much a straight line to Clark Griswold’s outlandish display in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and the wild dancing light displays that take over the South at Christmas.