Whether your family places a star, an angel, or some other ornament atop your Christmas tree each year is part of your own holiday decorating tradition. Although the ritual of using evergreens to represent eternal life in winter is older than Christianity, the custom of decorating evergreen trees as a symbol of the Christmas season started 500 years ago and became commonplace in the United States in the mid-19th Century.
The first record of a decorated tree is in 1510 in Latvia, where a tree was bedecked with roses, symbolic of the Virgin Mary. By the 1700s, evergreen branches were often adorned with apples, nuts, and colored strips of paper in Germany and Austria. Tree trimmers in France added lighted candles to Christmas trees.
In the 1800s, Christmas trees first appeared in the U.S., introduced by German settlers. By mid-century, trees cut from forests were being sold commercially. Fruit, nuts, toys, and glass ornaments were early popular tree decorations.
In 1848, Queen Victoria – whose mother was German – did much to popularize the decorated Christmas tree when a depiction of her gathered with her family around a tree hung with tinsel, beads, and candles appeared in the Illustrated London News (shown at right).
The first White House Christmas Tree, now a Presidential holiday tradition, was decorated in 1856 when New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce was President.
Artificial trees first appeared in the late 1800s, and in the early 20th century, some conservations encouraged people to use artificial trees as the natural supply of evergreen trees dwindled. President Theodore Roosevelt, a staunch environmentalist, refused to have a Christmas tree in his White House – until his sons, aided by famous conservationist Gifford Pinchot, convinced the President that when properly harvested, the cutting of Christmas trees was actually beneficial to forests.
The first Christmas tree farm was planted in 1901 in New Jersey, and during the 1930s President Franklin Roosevelt grew Christmas trees at his Hyde Park, New York, estate.
Tree trimming has evolved considerably in five centuries. With electricity, of course, came the easily lighted tree. Decorations now range from traditional tinsel, toys, and glass orbs to whimsical snowmen and Santas and ornaments depicting anything from tourist sites to cartoon characters.
Whether you string popcorn and cranberries for your tree or hang it with sparkling silver tinsel, use brightly colored lights or plain white, chances are your family has a special Christmas tree decorating tradition that brings the holiday spirit home.