The History of the Christmas Tree

Your child’s just reached the age where Christmas really matters. All the preparations, all the planning and decorating, everything about the holidays is an exciting experience for him. Along with the excitement comes the curiosity-about the colors, the songs, the traditions each family observes.

As adults, we’re used to our own family’s way of celebrating. We hang the lights a certain way, bake specific cakes and cookies, we even watch certain holiday TV shows, year after year-because, well, that’s just the way we do it.

For those families who celebrate Christmas, one tradition almost universal is the Christmas tree. It’s perhaps the most recognized symbol of Christmas in any home, and it’s so pervasive in our culture that we rarely ask ourselves: Who first decided to bring a tree inside, as a way of marking the holiday? Chances are, your child will ask at some point.

Like most of our holiday traditions, the origin of the Christmas tree isn’t exactly clear, but it’s probably rooted in ancient times, and probably connected to religious rituals. Many ancient cultures revered evergreen trees, which stayed green in the winter while other trees were bare. The evergreens served as a reminder that winter would pass, and the land would once again be fruitful.

As far back as ancient Rome, evergreens were used as a part of the Saturnalia festival – the New Year celebration. Romans exchanged branches and twigs of evergreens as a good-luck blessing.

Many historians believe that pagans of Scandinavia were the first people to bring actual trees indoors – a mid-winter symbol of the promise of the coming warmth of spring.

The German Saxons may have been the first to light their trees with candles, and to adorn them with decorations – trinkets of good fortune. The tradition of the indoor evergreen was so strong in Germany, it’s believed that the first use of Christmas trees by Christians developed there, with some experts placing its origin as far back as the eighth century.

The first recorded Christmas tree in England was in 1841, when Queen Victoria’s husband, German-born Prince Albert, set up a tree in Windsor Castle. In America, German immigrants were using Christmas trees as far back as the 1830’s. The custom took several decades to catch on in the U.S., as most people correctly assumed its pagan origins, but by the 1890’s the indoor decorated Christmas tree was a staple in most American homes.

Today we tend to decorate our trees with ornaments which have significant meaning to our lives. Early ornaments, particularly in Europe, included even food-delicacies intended to satisfy the spirits of good luck.

As far as your child is concerned, of course, your Christmas tree has a completely different purpose. It’s a landmark – if you had no tree, where would Santa leave all his gifts?

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