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5 Legends of the Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree is one of the central components of Christmas, yet no consensus exists that explains where it came from. But there are several legends...

  1. King Tut never saw a Christmas tree, but he would have understood the tradition which traces back long before the first Christmas. The Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrived, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life's triumph over death.

  2. The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. They decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one's journey through life.

  3. Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. The Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and placed evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.

  4. Born in 680 A.D., St. Boniface is credited with associating the fir with the Christmas celebration. Legend says that in the eighth century he came upon a ceremony of a human sacrifice taking place at the foot of a sacred oak tree. In anger, he struck the tree with an axe and felled it (perhaps with some help from a gust of wind, according to one source). In the ruins of the great oak was a single fir. St. Boniface pointed to this fir and told them that they should worship Christ, the bringer of life "ever green."

  5. Another legend is attributed to Martin Luther (1483-1546), the 16th Century German leader of church reform and strong voice in the Protestant Reformation. On Christmas Eve of 1519, the stars shone so brightly that Martin Luther could see his way clearly in the reflected snow on this dark night of December the 24th. He went out into the forest and returned with a beautiful fir tree, bringing it into his home so his family could admire it. He then placed glowing candles atop the branches to copy the star light outside, and stated the candles represented the shining stars in the heavens above Bethlehem, some fourteen centuries earlier.

The Origins of the Christmas Tree

While there are no hard facts about the origins of the Christmas tree, there is little question the Germans originated and popularized it.

The earliest written record of a decorated evergreen tree for Christmas appears in 1521 in the German region of Alsace. In 1561, the same region had a forest ordinance saying that no one "shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes' length." The German families would set up Christmas trees in a prominent location in their home and decorate them. As these people moved or immigrated to other countries, they brought this tradition with them. By the 1700s, the Christbaum, or "Christ tree," was a German tradition. It quickly spread to other parts of Europe and finally to America.

America adapted slowly to some of the Christmas traditions, because of the Puritan influence. Many puritans felt that Christmas was too sacred of a holiday and should not be marred with Christmas trees and Christmas carols. When the Christmas tree later regained popularity, symbolism was common. The Christmas tree is a symbol of a living Christmas spirit. Because balsam fir twigs, more than any other evergreen twigs, resemble crosses may have had much to do with the early popularity of balsam fir used as Christmas trees.

In 1851, the Christmas tree market began when farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. In 1856, Massachusetts was the last existing state to declare Christmas a legal holiday. Since then, it has exploded into a tradition-rich, festive season. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. By 1920, the custom was nearly universal in the United States.

Today, the Christmas tree is common in all Christian countries except Spain, Italy, and some of Latin America. Instead, these countries share the custom of erecting a miniature reproduction of the stable and manger where Christ was born. Even the Japanese have adopted the Christmas tree, but with this twist: they decorate their tree with tangerines and delicate rice wafers-which enclose fortune-telling slips!

Where did Christians get the idea for Christmas Trees?

Evergreens have been a symbol of rebirth since ancient times. The Romans decorated their homes with greenery during the Kalends of January. In the eleventh century, religious plays called "mystery plays" became popular throughout Europe. One of the most prevalent plays was the annual Christmas "Paradise Play" This play told of the Biblical account of Adam and Eve and the partaking of the forbidden fruit. The only prop on the stage was the "Paradise tree", a fir tree adorned with apples, which represented their sin. Later, wafers were added to the tree which stood for Christ's atoning sacrifice. Red and White flowers later adorned many of these trees. Red symbolized knowledge and the White flowers represented innocence. Many believe the common Christmas colors of Red, Green and White are attributed to the Paradise Tree.

Unfortunately, immoral behavior crept into these plays, and the church forbade these plays. However, people had grown so accustomed to the "Paradise tree" that they started putting it up in their homes on Dec. 24. The people decorated their tree with apples, and then later added candy and other sweets.

The Artificial Christmas Tree

Towards the end of the 1800s, another variation of the traditional Christmas tree appeared: the artificial Christmas tree. It is believed that like so many other Christmas traditions, artificial Christmas trees also originated in Germany. The first artificial Christmas trees were metal wire trees covered with feathers. The most popular feathers came were goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers. The feathers were often dyed green to look like pine needles.

In the 1930's, the Addis Brush Company created the first artificial-brush trees, using the same machinery that made their toilet brushes! The Addis 'Silver Pine' tree was patented in 1950. This innovative Christmas tree had a revolving light source under it. Colored gels allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree. This silver aluminum artificial Christmas trees became so popular that it was exported throughout the world!

The Origin of the National Christmas Tree

Franklin Pierce was the first President of the United States to introduce the Christmas Tree to the White House in 1856. However, this was not the start of the tradition now known as the "National Christmas Tree".

In November 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge gave permission for the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse south of the White House. The organizers named the tree the "National Christmas Tree." That Christmas Eve, at 5 p.m., President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse and "pushed the button" to light the cut 48-foot Balsam fir, as 3,000 enthusiastic spectators looked on. The tree, donated by Middlebury College, was from the President's native state of Vermont. From 1924 to 1953 live trees, in various locations around and on the White House grounds, were lit on Christmas Eve. In 1954 the ceremony returned to the Ellipse and expanded its focus. Local civic and business groups created the "Christmas Pageant of Peace." Smaller live trees representing the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia, formed a "Pathway of Peace." On December 17, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower lit the cut tree donated by the people of Michigan. The White House used cut trees until 1973.

Center to the season's celebration is the living National Christmas Tree, a Colorado blue spruce from York, Pennsylvania, planted on the Ellipse October 20, 1978. The tree stands as a daily reminder of the holiday spirit and of the tradition each succeeding President has shared in since 1923.

USA National Christmas Trees

2003 National Christmas Tree
2003 National Christmas Tree
2002 National Christmas Tree
2002 National Christmas Tree
2001 National Christmas Tree
2001 National Christmas Tree

The National Christmas tree is a live 40-foot Colorado blue spruce transplanted from York, Pennsylvania to its present site on the Ellipse in 1978. "We think of it as the Paul Bunyan of National Christmas Trees," said Roland McElroy, executive director of the Christmas Pageant of Peace. "It is a hardy specimen that has proved a worthy match for the bad weather and disease that plagued its predecessors."

Every year, General Electric designers decorate the tree with thousands of lights designed specifically for this event. They also provide the lights for the 56 state and territorial trees nearby.

Christmas Tree Decorations--A Chronological History

In Germany in the 1600's, Christmas Trees were decorated with colored paper, small toys, food, and sometimes candles. Later, tinsel, silver wire ornaments, candles and small beads became common. The custom was to have several small trees on tables, one for each family member, with their gifts stacked on the table under the tree.

There are several legends behind using tinsel to decorate the Christmas tree. The primary one tells of a woman whose husband had died. She needed to bring up a large family of children herself. She worked hard and was determined to make a happy time for them at Christmas. She prepared a Christmas tree to surprise them on Christmas Day. Unfortunately spiders visited the tree, and crawled from branch to branch, making webs all over it. The Christ Child saw the tree and knew she would be devastated to find this on Christmas morning. He changed the spiders' webs to shining silver.

Electric Christmas tree lights were first used just 3 years after Thomas Edison had his first public demonstration of electric lights in 1879. The early Christmas tree lights were handmade and rather expensive. In the 1900's, popular decorations included strings of popcorn, homemade cards, pictures, cotton to look like snow, candy, and eventually glass balls and figurines. Some people used candles, but they often caused devastating fires.

In the 1930's, Christmas trees were decorated with bells, balls, and tinsel, and with a beautiful golden haired angel at the top. Soon after, FW Woolworth produced and sold decorations specifically designed for Christmas trees. Translucent plastic shapes, honeycomb paper angels, and glow-in-the-dark icicles became popular items.

The mid-1960's saw another major change. The world was changing and modernist ideas were everywhere. Silver aluminum artificial trees were so popular that they were imported from America throughout the world. Colored lights placed below the tree made decorations unnecessary.

In the 1970's, America made a return to Victorian nostalgia and the trees had a refreshing new look. Some American companies specialized in making antique replicas, but others found the original makers in Europe to recreate wonderful glass ornaments and real silver tinsels.

Real Christmas trees were popular. However, several manufacturers starting creating artificial trees that looked real. Many homemakers preferred the convenience of a real looking artificial Christmas tree. If your room was big enough, you could have a 14-foot artificial spruce right in your living room-with no dropped needles! The new pine scented sprays claimed to give your artificial Christmas tree that "real tree smell"!

In the 1990's, "theme trees" gain in popularity. For example, the "Starry Night tree", the "Twilight tree", and even popular culture trees with customized ornaments.

Today, you can find Christmas trees in nearly every size, color, and shape, and decorated in every way imaginable.

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