Saturday, December 6, 2014

O Tannenbaum ~ History of the Christmas Tree

Can you imagine Christmas without Christmas trees? I know I can’t. In fact, during my child-rearing years, I had a recurring nightmare that I woke up on Christmas morning to find that I’d completely forgotten to put up a Christmas tree. I’d wake in a panic that only calmed as I realized it was just a dream. Still today, even without the concern of disappointing children, my reaction to such a dream would likely be sadness.


A few years ago a weak tornado spun through our small town. Thankfully it did little damage, but it did uproot the large evergreen tree in front of the State Police Post. For years the tree had served as the post’s annual Christmas tree. Townspeople were so heartsick to lose the tree that funds were raised and the tree was replaced before the next Christmas season.

The Christmas tree industry is a big business. Last year in the U.S., 23.4 million live and 9.6 million artificial Christmas trees were sold.   

So why does a decorated evergreen tree evoke such strong emotions, and how did it become an integral part of our celebration of Christ’s birth?


Romans with Winter Solstice Greenery
The practice of decorating with evergreens during the winter began long before the birth of Christ. The Egyptians, Romans, and Druids of Great Britain were among many ancient pagan cultures that celebrated the winter solstice with evergreens.

Druid Green Man

Egyptians decorated with palm leaves to symbolize new life triumphing over death. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, honoring Saturnus, the god of agriculture with evergreens, lights, and gifts. Druids used evergreen branches to ward off evil spirits.


The first connection between evergreens and Christianity arguably occurred in Germany about a thousand years ago when St. Boniface is said to have cut down an oak tree, which pagans there worshiped, and used the evergreen tree to explain the Holy Trinity.

St. Boniface

Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia both lay claim to being the site of the first “decorated” evergreen tree in celebration of the new year. About the same time, in Germany, Martin Luther is said to have decorated an evergreen tree with
Martin Luther with family and 1st decorated
Christmas tree
candles on Christmas Eve in honor of Christ’s birth after witnessing starlight through evergreen boughs during a walk in the woods.


The custom caught on and by the mid 16th Century, Germans were decorating their Christmas trees with candles, cookies, wax figures, and paper flowers. Silver tinsel came along a century later to add to the festive decorations.


German immigrants brought the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree to America in the early 1700s. Legend has it that during the American Revolution, Hessian mercenaries allied with the British were celebrating around their decorated Christmas tree in Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26, 1776 when General Washington’s troops surprised and overpowered them.
Battle of  Trenton

The notion of a Christmas tree wasn’t enthusiastically embraced in Puritan New England, however. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth Centuries, many protestant denominations frowned on any observance of Christmas.


It is Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, who is responsible for sparking the Christmas tree’s popularity. In 1846, the Illustrated London News printed an open Christmas card from the British Royal family. The image showed Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children standing around a small decorated Christmas tree which was situated on a table, German style.      
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and
children around Christmas tree.


The idea of the Christmas tree—hopefully not the tree itself—quickly caught fire. From royal courts to the most humble abode, Christmas trees soon graced homes around the world.

Victorian mother and children
with Christmas tree

Like many things having to do with Washington D.C., the exact year a Christmas tree first appeared at the White House is shrouded in controversy. Depending on the source you want to believe, a Christmas tree first graced the U.S. executive mansion in the 1840s during the administration of John Tyler, the 1850s and the presidency of Franklin Pierce, or 1889 when Benjamin Harrison was president. Personally, I cast my vote for Harrison since he hailed from my home state of Indiana.  

President Benjamin Harrison with wife, daughter,
and grandchildren in front of White House Christmas tree

Some other famous Christmas trees include the National Christmas Tree on the National Mall in Washington D.C., Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, London, England, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, New York, the Christmas tree at Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina, the Vatican Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square, Rome, Italy, Old Town Square Christmas tree, Prague, Czech Republic, and Manger Square Christmas tree in Bethlehem.

National Christmas Tree, Washington D.C.
Christmas tree at Trafalgar Square, London
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
New York

Old Town Square Christmas Tree, Prague, Czech Republic

Christmas tree at Biltmore Estate,
Asheville, North Carolina

Vatican Christmas tree, St. Peter's Square, Rome, Italy


Christmas tree in Manger Square, Bethlehem



Soldiers and Sailors Monument at Christmas,
Monument Circle, Indianapolis, Indiana

One of my favorite public Christmas trees is not actually a tree at all.  Called the “world’s tallest Christmas tree,” it’s located in my state’s capitol, Indianapolis, Indiana. Each winter since 1962, the Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument in downtown Indianapolis is strung with over five thousand multicolored lights to form a gigantic Christmas tree.

I’d venture to say that nearly everyone who celebrates Christmas has a warm spot in their heart for the Christmas tree. Despite there being no mention of an evergreen tree in the Bible story of the birth of Christ, we’ve so tightly embraced this iconic symbol of Christmas that it seems our heartstrings are tangled among its decorated boughs. From the most grand and ornate to the lowliest “Charlie Brown” conifer, a Christmas tree—any Christmas tree—stirs our emotions. Its image sparks fond memories while evoking thoughts of Christmas and the Christ child. With its pagan past long behind it, the decorated winter evergreen has set its roots deep into Christendom where it proudly wears the label; Christmas tree.


My fondest Christmas tree memory is of the cedar tree my parents decorated when I was four. My dad harvested it from the little woods on our land. I remember how it filled the whole living room with it's delicious scent. What is your favorite Christmas tree memory?

Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of Indiana.


Check out her website at




  1. The Christmas tree that stands out as one of the most memorable is the one we had the year I was five. My dad worked for the Forest Service. We lived on a ranger station outside Los Angeles at the time. Dad came home one night with a rescued pine tree. Apparently it had been the victim of a car accident or something like that. The tree wasn't pretty. In fact, it was so unstable that Dad had to tie it to the walls to keep it from tipping over. I didn't mind. I was happy to see this tree that had met such an untimely end as the focal point of our celebration. I remember thinking as a child how happy that tree must have been to have it's skimpy branches decorated with those big primary-colored glass light bulbs, our Shiny Brite ornaments and my mom's carefully draped silver icicles. I would sit at the base of the tree and gaze up at it. In my young, impressionable eyes, it was a beautiful tree. It remains so in my memories to this day.

    1. What a WONDERFUL Christmas tree story, Keli! I can only imagine the tons of fun you had as a child living on a ranger station! SOOO COOL! Your little crippled Christmas tree touched my heart. What a sweet childhood memory. :-)

  2. I enjoyed reading about all the current Christmas trees and looking at the pictures. I haven't put our artificial tree up as yet! oops! I remember cutting down Christmas trees with my parents when I was a child. We were missionary kids in Nigeria and still managed to have a wonderful Christmas. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Thanks, Sharon. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. You had a neat and interesting childhood, too. I'll bet your Nigerian playmates were awed by your Christmas tree. What a fun memory!

  3. Any chance you could tell the blog that they have two OCTOBER winners. I'm sure the second one should say DECEMBER. Thanks! It's the little things that bother me!!!! ha!

    1. Thanks, Sharon. I'll pass on the info to the blog managers. I'm guessing that the second listing for an October winner was inadvertently left off the original October list, but I'll check into it.

  4. Loved this post, Ramona. Christmas trees do have a special place in our hearts and memories. The pictures are beautiful. Thank you for sharing. My most memorable Christmas tree is the small one we put up in our apartment the first year we married. We'd only been married for two months and had little money, so we had a small tree we set up on a table and draped a sheet around it make snow. Then I bought a box or two of shiny ornaments in various colors and shapes. We decorated together and I thought it was one of the prettiest trees I'd ever seen. I still have over a dozen of those first ornaments and they are the first to be hung at the top of the tree where they won't be in danger of being knocked off. Some of the color has faded from a few of them, but the memories they bring back are precious to me.

    Our middle son was born on December 10, so after his first year, we chose to buy and decorate our tree as part of his birthday celebration. We did that until he went off to college.

  5. Thanks, Martha. What a lovely Christmas tree memory. I think many of our fondest Christmas tree memories are attached to treasured times in our lives. I have some of those treasured ornaments myself. I wouldn't take any amount of money for them. Love your tradition of decorating the tree as part of your son's birthday celebration. Really neat!

  6. My favorite Christmas memories are of when we had the real trees.. the smell was... And the year it tipped over! such good memories . Christmas Eve was always fun...

  7. My Daddy and Uncle John cut a cedar tree from a pasture several miles from our house. The tree was full and beautifully shaped. They put it in the stand, put on the lights and garland and started to smell an unpleasant order. It seems the pasture was home to a herd of goats and the tree no longer smelled of cedar but of goat. They removed the lights and garland. The tree went outside and the next afternoon they found a new tree. My other favorite Christmas tree story - my brother and I went Christmas tree shopping in my VW Beatle. We bought a 6 and a half foot tree and transported it in my beatle. My brother was about 6' 2" at the time. It was maybe 15 miles from the tree lot to our house. Luckily the car had a Sun roof so the top of the tree was sticking out of the car and Joe was crunched up in the front seat. This story is extra funny because Daddy's pickup truck was parked in the driveway but I didn't like to drive anything larger than my old Beatle