The History of the Christmas Tree

Nothing says Christmas like a big tree strung with lights—but do you know where the tradition of Christmas trees started? Why is it considered a holiday ritual to chop down or buy a tree and decorate it for the season? What does it symbolize, if anything? If you’ve ever wondered just where this tradition came from and why it’s so popular, you may find the history of the Christmas tree interesting.

While the tradition of bringing in trees to decorate at Christmas isn’t something easy to pin down to just one moment or story, it does have origins in several places in history. This beloved custom has grown and developed over the years into the hallowed holiday celebration known by Americans today.

Winter Traditions Thousands of Years Ago

As long as there have been seasons, there have been people celebrating them. One way people in ancient times would mark the start of winter was by bringing in branches to hang in their homes, for example, perhaps a precursor to the garlands and trees of modern times. Pagans used to bring fir trees into temples at the festival of Saturnalia. By the Middle Ages, Christian missionaries were preaching a message of Christ’s lordship over these and other previously pagan symbols.

Paradise Trees

While there’s a legend that Martin Luther started the practice of Christmas trees, the more likely origin was in medieval plays that depicted Christian themes. Nativity plays connected all the way to the story of Creation, and Christmas Eve was known as the feast day of Adam and Eve. When those plays ended up being banned in the 16th century, people started adding paradise trees to their homes to compensate.

Jolly Old St. Nicholas

The idea of putting presents under a tree each year may have originated with St. Nicholas, a bishop famous for giving gifts to poor children. His feast day happens to be on December 6, near the annual Christmas holiday. But likewise, by the time of Paradise Trees, gift-giving had become a more common custom in some European countries.

British Christmas Trees

By the 1800s, Christmas trees were growing in popularity in England. In 1841, Prince Albert had a tree sent in to use at Windsor Castle. A published drawing spread the idea around the nation, and trees became popular in the UK and USA. Soon, candles became a popular decoration, representing stars, and presents become even more popular as people spread the tradition.

All of the above stories and traditions have culminated into what today is known as a Christmas icon. As Americans around the nation chop down, purchase and bring out of storage their yearly Christmas tree, they follow in the footsteps of many generations before them.

Joe Grech - Dec 24, 2017
A great tradition with lights gifts etc etc. But where is the TRUE reason we are celebrating? There is on going trend to eliminate Jesus from Christmas since I remember. Once they used to put an X to remove Christmas like so: Xmas!!!!! Now they are removing cribs etc and illegalize saying Merry Christmas.
Jan Berry - Dec 23, 2017
Now I know, Thank you !
Chrystine Dimitry - Dec 22, 2017
The ornaments on Christmas trees were originally gifts, hence the line in The Christmas Song "presents on the tree". These were just small tokens, like a little bag of candy for a child, or a gift of jewelry for a special lady, so they were small and light enough to place in the brances to be discovered Christmas morning. When presents started getting too big, pretty glass ornaments and beads were used instead, and the presents were placed under the tree.
Eleanor Slanga - Dec 9, 2016
Absolutely delightful! Thanks for sharing.
Connie mines - Dec 8, 2016
Cool to know. So many "good" traditions have come from ominous beginnings. Since Christmas is about to be here, the traditional "cross" we all wear to show Christ died for us is interesting. He did die on a cross and he suffered greatly for our sins in the garden of Gethesimine. The garden outside Jerusalem mentioned in Mark:14 as the scene of the agony and arrest of Jesus. Then, it was a sign of death, now since Christ arose and then regain His body it is worn as a symbol of birth.