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Christmas Tree in Germany (late 1700s, by Joseph Keller)

A tree in Germany (late 1700s, by Joseph Keller) – History of Christmas trees

Evergreens and the winter holidays

Because Christmas is related to old celebrations of the winter solsticeevergreen trees have always been popular decorations in northern countries at Christmas time. They’re green when everything else is dead and white.

Why do the seasons change?
More about Christmas
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When were the first Christmas trees?

In the time of the Roman Empire, people sometimes hung small bits of metal from trees at this time of year – but they were living outside trees, not cut ones. In the Middle Ages, in Europe, people sometimes hung apples from trees for Christmas. But people only started to cut pine trees down and bring them inside houses in 1531 AD, in northern Germany. Probably these Christmas trees were a Protestant substitute for the nativity scenes and mangers in Catholic houses.

Christmas in medieval Europe
Francis and nativity scenes

When did Christmas trees get decorations?

Pine tree forest

Pine trees in Colorado

These earliest Christmas trees were plain; they didn’t have any decorations on them. By 1605, though, some people at least were decorating their trees with paper rosesapples, nuts, and sugar candy (which had just been invented).

History of sugar candy
Where do apples come from?

When did tinsel get involved?

In 1610, rich people began to put thin strands of real silver tinsel on their trees. By 1650, they were hanging dolls and maybe other presents from their trees too. Parents or servants then shook the trees so the presents and candy fell off and the children could grab them.

Christmas trees and German immigration

American Christmas Tree (about 1812 or 1819)

American Christmas Tree (about 1812 or 1819)

As Christmas trees got more popular in Germany, people in other countries began to want trees too. People thought of their Christmas tree as a German thing, and they bought their best Christmas tree decorations from German stores.

Beginning in the early 1800s, as more German people moved to North America, they brought the idea of Christmas trees with them. Americans who weren’t from German families didn’t have Christmas trees.

Queen Victoria's Christmas Tree (1840s)

Queen Victoria’s Christmas Tree (1840s)

Queen Victoria has a tree

In 1841, though, the German Prince Albert, who was married to Queen Victoria of England, had a Christmas tree in Windsor Palace in England. Newspapers in the United States printed the picture of Queen Victoria’s family around their tree.

Everyone admired young, pretty Queen Victoria, and many rich families in the United States began to have their own trees, even if they weren’t from German families.

Christmas trees and Americans

A modern Christmas tree

By the 1880s, as more Italian immigrants came to the United States, having a Christmas tree became a way to show that you were a patriotic American, and not an Italian who had a nativity scene.

World War I and Christmas trees

During World War I, when the United States was at war with Germany, most German immigrants stopped letting people know they were from Germany. They just wanted to be plain Americans. So they said their pretty trees were just what regular Americans did, not German anymore.

World War I

People gradually forgot that these trees had once been only for Protestants, and for Germans. In the course of the 1900s, these two traditions mixed, and by 1982 even the Pope in Rome had a Christmas tree in his Vatican palace. Even many people who were not Christian at all started to have holiday trees – Indian immigrants, and Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and some Jewish families.

More about Christmas

Bibliography and further reading about the history of Christmas:


Medieval Christmas
Medieval Hanukkah
American religion
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