In 1851, Mark Carr, a logger from New York’s Catskill Mountains, created the first Christmas tree lot. In order to make a little extra money that December he rented sidewalk space in New York City. His rental expense for the season was a mere one dollar. Day after day he sold his cut trees to city dwellers. Carr’s business venture was so profitable that the following year the owner of the sidewalk increased Carr’s rent to $100. Over the years, Carr’s concept of placing a festive tree inside the home expanded across the country until the Christmas tree became an American tradition. One poll reveals that nearly 85 percent of all American homes contain a decorated tree at Christmas time — a total of between 80 and 90 million decorated trees. 

Christmas tree
Thinkstock photo

Although the Christmas tree is associated with a major Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Christ, the origin of placing a festive tree in the home goes back to the Vikings. In Scandinavian countries, winter was cold and bleak, and days were short. In some areas, the sun disappeared for weeks at a time, creating a perpetual night. Winds howled, snow piled up and temperatures remained below zero for days. Because of extreme cold, each winter every community experienced the death of several villagers and many animals. 

It was a brutal time of the year. Yet, the Vikings found a point of hope and comfort in the evergreen tree. They noted that the evergreen not only survived one harsh winter after another but also continued to grow and thrive. Consequently, the Vikings began to cut down evergreen trees and place them in their homes. There, the tree would be a daily symbol of hope and a reminder that the winds would cease, the temperature would rise, the snow would melt, the days would get longer and new growth would begin again. 

Along with the Vikings, other Europeans were intrigued by the mystery of the tree which stayed green throughout the winter. Many of them included the evergreen tree as part of their pagan religious practices. It is through those pagan customs that the evergreen tree eventually made it’s way into Christianity. 

There are various legends that offer explanations for the origins of the “Christmas tree” as it came to be called. One of those legends involved St. Boniface (675-754), a British monk who traveled across Europe as a missionary. One Christmas eve he came across some German-speaking people who were preparing a human sacrifice before an oak tree. According to legend, he struck the oak a single blow with his axe and felled the tree. Impressed by his miraculous powers, the people abandoned human sacrifice and embraced Christianity. Boniface pointed to a small evergreen fir tree and instructed them to make that tree a symbol of their new faith and to use it when celebrating the birth of Christ. 

Another legend about the origin of the Christmas tree is tied to Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483-1546). On Christmas Eve, as he was walking through the woods, the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of the fir trees moved him deeply. An idea came to his mind. He quickly cut down a small tree and took it home for his family. Luther covered it with lit candles and then used the tree as an object lesson to explain the faith. He taught his family that the tree, whose evergreen color never faded, was like God’s love which would never fade away no matter what life’s circumstances were. The lit candles represented Jesus Christ, the “light of the world.” For Luther, the tree symbolized the entire Christian faith and not merely Christmas. 

An Alsace Law

It is in Germany where the earliest historical reference to a Christmas tree first appeared. In 1561, a law was passed at Alsace that limited each “burgher” or resident to only one “Christmas tree.” The law further stipulated that the tree could be no more than “eight shoes” in height. Evidently, the custom of bringing a live tree into the home had become so popular that deforestation was becoming an issue. A little later, in 1605, a visitor to the city of Strasbourg was impressed by the German custom of bringing a fir tree into the home and decorating it. The traveler said that German ornaments included apples, wafers, paper roses, gilt and sugar decorations. Interestingly, some Christian religious leaders were opposed to the custom, arguing that the tree detracted from the real reason for the season. Their objections, however, were largely ignored by Christmas-loving Germans. 

From Germany the custom of a Christmas tree spread all over Western Europe. By 1837, a Christmas tree was being used in France. In 1840, England’s Queen Victoria and her German-born husband to be, Prince Albert, celebrated Christmas with a decorated tree. By the 19th century, Christmas trees had been adopted in many other northern European countries such as Russia, Sweden, Finland and Norway. Southern European countries continued to celebrate Christmas with Nativity scenes of the Holy Family. 

In the United States, the first Christmas trees were introduced during the American Revolution by German mercenaries fighting for the Colonial army. The concept of using a live tree at Christmas did not catch on with the early Americans, and the custom returned to Germany with the mercenaries at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. Around 1820, German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought the custom of the tree back to America. This time it caught on. 

By the 1840s, the Christmas tree was widely known throughout the United States. An 1845 children’s book, Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree, helped further propel popularity of the tree. The earliest American trees were short and small and often displayed on tables. Americans gradually switched to larger trees placed in stands on the floor because they had an ever-increasing variety of ornaments to place on them. Those early trees were decorated with gingerbread, pretzels, cookies, apples, lemons, oranges, figs, strings of cranberries or popcorn, candy, dolls, paper roses, glass balls and ornaments made of egg shells or cotton. 

As the Christmas tree made its way into American homes and hearts, some clergymen voiced opposition to what they declared was originally a pagan custom. However, the Christmas tree soon began to appear in churches during the Christmas season. In 1856. Franklin Pierce became the first U.S. President to celebrate Christmas in the White House with a decorated tree. As the Christmas tree’s popularity broadened, President Theodore Roosevelt expressed ecological concerns over the national consumption of evergreen trees. Advisors ought to reassure the President by telling him they believed America’s forests could survive the yearly harvest. Hearing of the President’s concern, some companies began introducing artificial trees, a concept which would take decades to catch on. 

Other presidents became involved with Christmas trees. Woodrow Wilson presided over the first national Christmas tree ceremony on Christmas Eve, 1913. The ceremony took place near the Capitol building. That occasion became a major event in the Washington, D.C., as 20,000 people gathered on Christmas Eve to witness the tree-lighting ceremony. They were entertained by the U.S. Marine Band, 1,000 singers and a costumed group of people reenacting the Nativity of Christ. Later, President Calvin Coolidge moved the national Christmas tree to the White House and, in 1923, he led the first ceremonial lighting of the national Christmas tree at the White House. That ceremonial lighting has become a yearly tradition with exception of the years between 1942 and 1944 when wartime blackouts prohibited the use of festive outdoor lights. 

As Christmas trees became more and more popular across the country, concerns about ecology and environment, as well as the issue of fire prevention, has prompted the majority of Americans to use artificial trees. Another, less-popular trend begun by ecologists is the use of a potted live tree that, after Christmas, can be planted outdoors. Last year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, only 31 percent of households displayed a real Christmas tree while 49 percent displayed an artificial tree and 21 percent had no tree. 

From its humble beginnings as a symbol of hope and strength for the ancient Vikings, the Christmas tree has evolved into the central symbol of the world’s most celebrated holiday. Today, the Christmas tree is displayed during the Christmas season in stores, malls, churches, businesses, on streets, in yards, and in millions of homes.

REV PARACHIN writes from Tulsa, Okla.