How pagans, protestants, princes and presidents helped make trees an iconic part of Christmas
Many holiday traditions involve gifts, special foods and visiting friends and family, but Christmas holds the special honor of being the one time of year millions of people temporarily add a tree to their home furnishings. As lovely as a pine or spruce may be on its own, most people now decorate their tree with ornaments, food and lights, both for the spectacle and the annual experience of hanging the ornaments. As rote as this may seem now, Christmas trees weren’t always part of the Christmas holiday. They actually predate Christmas itself, which is also why their adoption as a holiday staple is a more recent development than many of us realize.
Sprigs for the solstice
In a world where we can flick on lights with a finger, heat our homes automatically and ship food in from any climate, it’s hard to appreciate how pivotal the winter solstice once was in people’s calendars. It was a time of celebration and relief, as people could start looking forward to warmer days, shorter nights and a chance to farm once again. In an increasingly bleak time of year, evergreen trees stood out for their perseverance, and so people would take tree trimmings into their homes. These sprigs and branches were used to decorate homes and temples from Scandinavia to Rome, with each culture honoring the sun deity of their choice. The fact that many evergreens smell nice only added to beliefs, as some cultures believed they’d help ward off witches, ghosts and illness.
Pretty lights or paganism?
In the 16th century, it’s believed that Martin Luther was inspired to take this relationship with evergreens to the next level, decorating them for Christmas. The idea caught on in Germany, but wasn’t exactly welcome everywhere. Even as German immigrants brought their traditions to new parts of the world, including the American colonies, many Christians weren’t happy with the integration of “pagan” practices in a holiday dedicated to the birth of Jesus. In some areas, the German Christmas trees were regarded as oddities, while other municipalities bothered to pass laws banning ornaments in trees, demanding that people only observe Christmas with a church service.
Christmas trees eventually won people over, largely thanks an endorsement from Queen Victoria of England and her German husband, Prince Albert. In 1846, an image was published of the queen and her family standing next to a Christmas tree, which seemed to break down a barrier for people in England and the United States. The influence of German immigration had been steadily growing, including into Canada, but this was a bit of a tipping point that brought trees into the mainstream.
Farms save the forests
However, getting a tree wasn’t necessarily easy at that point. Trees had to be procured from the forest and then brought home, or transported to urban areas to be sold. It was a successful business model, but the growing interest in trees and ornaments was contributing to noticeable deforestation. As conservationist, President Teddy Roosevelt campaigned to stop the purchase of Christmas trees, banning them at the White House during his administration.
The solution to rampant, uncontrolled tree-cutting came in 1901. An entrepreneuring farmer from New Jersey named William McGalliard figured he could supplement his winter income by planting the world’s first Christmas tree farm. Taking advantage of a patch of rocky soil on his land, he planted around 25,000 trees to eventually sell for a dollar a piece. He had to wait seven years for the trees to mature, but the investment proved to be quite successful. Forests no longer needed to be pillaged, and farmers adopting this model found a winter harvest to help get through lean winter months. By 1926, Christmas tree farming was so wide spread that Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin, closed the loop, so to speak, opening a tree farm on his property in Hyde Park, New York.
Acquiring a tree as agritainment
At this point, Christmas tree farms are doing their best to keep trees firmly rooted in people’s holiday traditions. Countries like Greenland import trees that they can’t grow themselves. Every state in the United States, including Hawaii, grow trees locally for the holiday. You can buy a tree from a store parking lot, or make an experience of picking your tree, cutting it yourself, and then letting a trained dog drag it to your car to take home. None of this is necessarily evocative of earlier interests in sun gods or wards against witches, but it looks like these trees have weathered centuries of controversy as well as they regularly winter’s snow.
Source: History of Christmas Trees, History.com