The History of Christmas Trees Around the World

December 03, 2020

The History of Christmas Trees Around the World

Christmas is right around the corner, which means it's time to get out your Christmas tree, sift through different ornaments, and grab a string of white or multicolored lights. 

As a symbol of joy and cheerfulness, it's common to walk into a home during the holiday season to see a wonderfully decorated Christmas tree. Usually, you notice it in a living room, dining room, or den. But no matter what, the Christmas tree is always in a place where you can easily notice it, and it's typically the centerpiece of the room. 

Even malls, stores, and coffee shops put up a Christmas tree. And if you go to New York City during the holiday season, you can visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, which shines just as bright as all of Manhattan. 

In America, these beautifully decorated trees are a symbol—if not, the symbol—that Christmas is finally here. However, have you ever wondered where Christmas trees come from and why they're such a holiday staple? 

While loved in the U.S., Christmas trees did not originate in America. In fact, the history of Christmas trees expands all around the world, and their usage dates back to ancient Egypt and Rome. 

The origin story of Christmas trees 

Today, Christmas trees are used to celebrate a cultural and religious holiday. And surprisingly, cultural and spiritual roots have always been a primary reason people use evergreen trees

In ancient times, it was customary to see people hang evergreen boughs around their homes—and in many cultures, some people believed these decorations fended off evil, including ghosts, witches, illness, and bad spirits. 

Other places, however, used evergreen boughs for different religious reasons. In the Northern hemisphere, for example, people recognized the shortest day and longest night of the year as the winter solstice. They believed winter only came because their sun god was weak and ill. 

So, the solstice was special because it indicated that their sun god would soon be well again. They even used evergreen boughs to remember that the sun god's return would ensure every green plant grows when summer is back in season.

In ancient Egypt, the solstice and evergreen trees also held a special place in people's hearts. In this country, people worshipped a god named Ra, who wore a crown with the sun as a blazing disk. 

Ancient Egyptians believed that their god would recover from his illness during the solstice. And to celebrate Ra's victory over death, the people decorated their homes with green palm rushes, which are members of the evergreen group. 

The Romans also did something similar. For the solstice, they celebrated with a feast to honor their god of agriculture, and they filled their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. The greenery reminded the Romans that the solstice would bring fruitful harvests, orchards, and farms. 

But the origin story of Christmas trees doesn't stop with these powerful ancient civilizations. You can see the history of Christmas trees around the world, including in Northern Europe, where priests of the ancient Celts hung evergreen boughs around their temples to symbolize everlasting life, and in Scandinavia, where the Vikings believed evergreens were a precious plant from Balder, their sun god. 

How Christmas trees came to America

The Christmas tree tradition that you see today doesn't look like the one that people practiced in ancient times. In fact, it wasn't until the 16th century that Germany transformed how people used Christmas trees. 

When a group of devout Christians started to put Christmas trees in their homes, they decorated them with apples, candles, nuts, and berries. And the unusual but beautiful symbol caught on. Over time, many Christians started to put up decorated evergreen trees during the holiday season. 

Even Martin Luther, a 16th-century Protestant reformer, brought Christmas trees into his home. Some people also say that Luther was the first person to put lighted candles on a tree. 

While composing a sermon on a walk home, Luther was supposedly floored by how the stars twinkled on the evergreens, and he wanted to replicate that image. After buying a Christmas tree and placing it in the main room of his house, Luther strung the branches with lighted candles for him and his family to adore. 

It didn't take long for this Christian ritual to spread throughout Europe, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, German immigrants introduced the 'modern' Christmas tree to America. Experts believe that German settlers in Pennsylvania put up community trees as early as 1747, but the first Christmas tree on display was recorded in the 1830s. 

Initially, Americans rejected this German tradition, blaming its pagan roots for why it wouldn't become a Christian custom. Christmas was a sacred holiday to the Puritans, and they didn't want to adopt any traditions that seemingly desecrated it. William Bradford, the pilgrim's second governor, believed the tradition was "pagan mockery." And a prominent figure, Oliver Cromwell, thought Christmas trees were a "heathen tradition."

How did Christmas trees become popular? 

In 1846, Queen Victoria, who was beloved and popular among the people, finally changed the way Americans viewed Christmas trees. When a newspaper published a sketch of her and her German husband standing next to a Christmas tree with their family, Americans started to warm up to the practice. 

People viewed the royal family as trendsetters. The traditions and practices that happened in the court always became fashionable among Britons and Americans. So, it didn't take long for wealthy individuals in the U.S. to integrate Christmas trees when they saw Queen Victoria and her family incorporating it into their holiday. 

The role of Christmas ornaments 

The adoption of Christmas trees immediately led to an increase in Christmas ornaments.

By the 1890s, you could find Christmas ornaments from all over the world. For example, Woolworth's Department Store in the U.S. was extremely successful during the holiday season, selling about $25 million in German imported ornaments. 

Japan and Eastern Europe also mass-produced Christmas ornaments, helping to create a global commercial market. Eventually, decorating a Christmas tree became an at-home art project, where you could use beautiful handmade ornaments, wool, tinsel, and silk. 

Even Hallmark got in on the fun by launching "Keepsake" ornaments in 1973. The collection of decorations included glass baubles and little yarn figures that are still successful today. 

As Christmas ornaments have become increasingly popular, more companies have started to produce them, and some organizations do it for a good cause. Khutsala Artisans, for example, currently provides handmade Christmas ornaments that Swazis from Eswatini, Africa, produce. All of the profits go to Heart for Africa, a faith-based organization that's committed to reducing hunger, decreasing poverty, helping vulnerable children, and providing education. 

By purchasing Christmas ornaments from Khutsala Artisans, you now have the opportunity to beautifully decorate your Christmas tree and help spread Christmas cheer to the most vulnerable people in the world.

The symbolism of Christmas trees 

Christmas trees have come a long way. They started as evergreen boughs in ancient civilizations, and now, you see them standing big and tall in homes and shopping centers around the world. 

Decorated and well-lit, Christmas trees—and their ornaments—offer a symbol of hope and joy. And as Christmas continues to roll around every year, that hope and joy will remain as it has all throughout history.

Shop with purpose by buying Khutsala Artisans’ handmade Christmas ornaments. For products, shop here!

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