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The History of the Christmas Tree!

The History of the Christmas Tree!

Christmas wasn't always celebrated the way it is today. In fact, the Puritans of Massachusetts banned any observance of Christmas, and anyone caught observing the holiday had to pay a fine. Connecticut had a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas and the baking of mincemeat pies! A few of the earliest settlers did celebrate Christmas, but it was far from a common holiday in the colonial era. Here's a brief but interesting history of the Christmas Tree!
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Roman Times

The Christmas tree actually predates Christianity by centuries! Ancient Romans decorated trees with small pieces of metal during Saturnalia, their winter festival in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. There is much evidence to suggest that December 25th was chosen as the day to celebrate Christ's birth in order to take over the holiday from the pagans. (Most historians place the birth of Christ as in the spring or summer; shepherds don't watch over their flocks in the fields in the dead of winter! Historians believe the Emporer Constantine did this around the year 390 to combine Christmas with the Saturn and Mithras celebrations and also with the cult of Sol Invictus, a form of Sunday worship that had come to Rome from Syria a century before).

Middle Ages

During the middle ages, an evergreen was decorated with apples and called the Paradise tree, as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve and was held on December 24th each year.


The modern Christmas trees appeared in the middle 1500's. The trees were sold at local markets and set up in homes without any ornaments in the Strassbourg area of Alsace in 1531, which was then a part of Germany.


The oldest record of a decorated Christmas tree came from a 1605 diary found in Strasburg. The tree was decorated with paper roses, apples and candies.

In Austria & Germany during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tops of evergreens were cut and hung upside down in a living room corner. They were decorated with apples, nuts and strips of red paper.

Tinsel was invented in Germany around 1610. Real silver was used at that time, and special machines were invented to pull the silver out into wafer thin strips for tinsel. Silver was durable, but tarnished quickly, especially with candlelight which was used at that time. Attempts were made to use a mixture of lead and tin, but this was heavy and tended to break under its own weight so was not so practical. So silver was used for tinsel right up to the mid-20th century when plastics took its place.
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The first record of Christmas trees in America was for children in the German Moravian Church's settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas 1747. Actual trees were not decorated, but wooden pyramids covered with evergreen branches were decorated with candles.

The custom of the Christmas tree was introduced in the United States during the War of Independence by Hessian troops. An early account tells of a Christmas tree set up by American soldiers at Fort Dearborn, Illinois, the site of Chicago, in 1804. Most other early accounts in the United States were among the German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania. Just as the first trees introduced into Britain did not immediately take off, the early trees introduced into America by the Hessian soldiers were not recorded in any particular quantity. Even so, it is known that the Pennsylvanian German settlements had community trees as early as 1747.

Decorations were still of a 'home-made' variety. Young Ladies spent hours at Christmas Crafts, quilling snowflakes and stars, sewing little pouches for secret gifts and paper baskets with sugared almonds in them. Small bead decorations, fine drawn out silver tinsel came from Germany together with beautiful Angels to sit at the top of the tree. Candles were often placed into wooden hoops for safety.

1800's - The tree really catches on in the English speaking countries

Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1842.

Somewhere around 1846 - 48, Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was credited with bringing the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal Family. Some historians state that in actuality Queen Charlotte, Victoria's grandmother, recalled that a Christmas tree was in the Queen's lodge at Windsor on Christmas Day in 1800. It is certain that in the Illustrated London News in 1846, an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince, Albert and their children around a Christmas tree appeared. Unlike the previous Royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court immediately became fashionable - not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society.

The decorations were tinsels, silver wire ornaments, candles and small beads. All these had been manufactured in Germany and East Europe since the 17th century. The custom was to have several small trees on tables, one for each member of the family, with that persons gifts stacked on the table under the tree.

In America, until this time, Christmas trees were considered a quaint foreign custom. America was so geographically large, that it tended to have 'pockets' of customs relating to the immigrants who had settled in a particular area. It was not until the telegraph communications really got going in the 19th century, that such customs began to spread. Thus references to decorated trees in America before about the middle of the 19th century are very rare. But by 1850, the Christmas tree had become fashionable in the eastern states.

Meanwhile, in Germany, companies, like Lauscha, began to produce fancy shaped glass bead garlands for the trees, and short garlands made from necklace 'bugles' and beads. These were readily available in Germany but not produced in sufficient quantities to export to Britain or America. The Rauschgoldengel was a common sight. Literally, 'Tingled-angel', bought from the Thuringian Christmas markets, and dressed in pure gilded tin.

Mark Carr brought trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York in 1851, and opened the first retail Christmas tree lot in the United States. Franklin Pierce was the first president to introduce the Christmas tree to the White House in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children.

By the 1870's, Glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Lauscha, in Thuringia (Germany). It became a status symbol to have glass ornaments on the tree, the more one had, the better ones status! Still many home-made things were seen. The British Empire was growing, and the most popular tree topper was the Union Jack (the nation's flag). Sometimes there were flags of the Empire and flags of the allied countries. Trees became very patriotic.

The glass ornaments started being imported into America around 1880, where they were sold through stores such as FW Woolworth. They were quickly followed by American patents for electric lights (1882), (until this time candles were attached to tree branches - which resulted in a lot of fires!) and metal hooks for safer hanging of decorations onto the trees (1892). You can still find candle clips and tree candles in German department stores. The artificial Christmas tree was invented in the 1880's in Germany, to combat some of the damage being done by so many native Fir trees being chopped for Christmas.

The main meal in England on Christmas day was goose (if they were wealthy), ham or roast beef. Turkey is a relatively recent addition, as turkeys are native to America and don’t do well in the English climate. Christmas pudding, Figgy pudding and plum pudding are English fruitcakes, saturated in brandy, that date back to the Middle Ages. Suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts, and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are "plum," meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. Brandy is poured over it daily for weeks until it is well pickled! It is then unwrapped, sliced, and topped with cream or custard. You can feel your arteries hardening just looking at it; but it still tastes better than a fruitcake. For some reason those Claxton fruitcakes caught on around the beginning of the 1900's in America.
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The Christmas tree popularity died down somewhat in the UK after the death of Queen Victoria. but in the 1930's (in Britain) there was a revival of Dickensian nostalgia, particularly in Britain. Christmas cards all sported Crinoline ladies with muffs and bonnets popular in the 1840's. Christmas Trees became large, and real again, and were decorated with many bells, balls and tinsels, and with a beautiful golden haired angel at the top.

But wartime England put a stop to many of these trees. It was forbidden to cut trees down for decoration, and with so many raids, many people preferred to keep their most precious heirloom Christmas tree decorations carefully stored away in metal boxes, and decorated only a small tabletop tree with home-made decorations, which could be taken down into the shelters for a little Christmas cheer, when the air-raid sirens went.

The first national American Christmas Tree was lighted in the year 1923 on the White House lawn by President Calvin Coolidge. A tree from the National Christmas Tree Association has been displayed in the Blue Room of the White House since 1966.
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See Christmas at the White House

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After World War II, the Christmas tree again became popular!

The mid-1960's saw another change. Plastic was everywhere. Silver aluminum trees became popular. The 'Silver Pine' tree, patented in the 1950's, was designed to have a revolving light source under it, with colored gelatine 'windows, which allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree. No decorations were needed for this tree.
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Richard with his Aluminum Christmas Tree
Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 1997 Gelatin Silver Print
Author unknown

There was an abundance of Aluminum Christmas Trees at thrift stores and rummage sales in Manitowoc, the Aluminum Cookware Capital of the World. Millions had been made here during the 1960s and many stayed close to home. We bought any we found at a reasonable price and set them up each December, with rotating stands and colored spotlights, in a silvery forest arrangement in the storefront of our photo studio. In 2004, this story became Season's Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree.

Richard’s wife Eli spotted our tree installation a few years back while she was at the bank across the street. She brought him by one snowy evening and he introduced himself as the Chief Engineer on the Aluminum Christmas Tree project at the Aluminum Specialty Company, Manitowoc. He and two other engineers had designed the tree and its packaging, and put it into production in time to hit retail stores in 1959. Tree sales peaked in 1962, but they became less and less popular after that, even considered tacky, until the company stopped making them in 1969.

As an industrial engineer, his career evolved with the American economy and the rise of consumer goods. He went from working on 105 mm projectiles for use by the US Army in Korea (1950s), to Aluminum Christmas Trees (1960s), to aluminum cookware (1970s), to wooden aircraft (1980s). Now retired, he says “I always enjoyed everything I did, I was so lucky.”

When they photographed Richard in December 1997, he and Eli had just moved into a brand new condo in a retirement village. Despite fashion trends or life changes, they’d always set up the eight-foot prototype Aluminum Christmas Tree in their living room, a holiday tradition in their home since 1960.
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1970 - Traditional Christmas Returns

If the 1960s was a decade of change and revolution, the 1970s were years of nostalgia. This trend was most evident at Christmas time. Magazines promoted Christmas as a time to spend at home with family members preparing for the holiday season. Many patterns for recreating ornaments like those used almost a century ago appeared in magazines.

Oil embargoes at both the beginning and the end of the decade made Americans more energy conscious. The desire to save energy extended even to Christmas. There was a major reduction in the sale of Christmas lights, for example, even though miniature lights used less electricity than ordinary light bulbs. Some Americans went so far as to turn off all other lights in their homes when they plugged in their Christmas tree lights.

In response to the dimly lit Christmas trees, new types of ornaments were created. One was called "Magi-Glo," red, white, blue, and green laminated plastic ornaments that glowed in the dark to offset the lack of lights on the trees. Plastic ornaments continued in popularity during the seventies. These ornaments were hung at the bottom of the tree, and the fragile glass up high so that small children could not break them.

The "country" look dominated many Christmas trees in the 1970s. Gingham bows, dried flowers, fabric dolls, corn-husk girls, wooden ornaments, and glazed sets of bread dough ornaments decorated the trees of the 1970s. The natural look was in style and the seventies saw the revival of the home-crafted decorations.

The limited edition ornament became popular in the 1970s and the fad continues today. In 1973, for example, the Hallmark Corporation introduced "Keepsake Ornaments," and they were an immediate hit with consumers. By 1979, there were commemorative ornaments for "Teacher," "Special Friend," and "Baby's First Christmas." Today, collectors eagerly await Hallmark's Christmas ornament catalog that comes out each summer.
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During the 1980s, Americans became fascinated with collecting all manner of objects --sports cards, stamps, autographs, dolls, just about anything that was portable. Not surprisingly, ornaments became the number one Christmas collectible.

The Hallmark Corporation of Kansas City recognized this trend early on and began to manufacture special Christmas ornaments in limited editions. Christmas ornament collectors' clubs emerged during the 1980s, and they generated a huge increase in the market for limited edition ornaments. Hallmark continues to design and manufacture new and creative collectible ornaments every year.

Christmas decorating gained immense popularity in the 80s, almost like the early Victorian era with the more decorations the better. Americans returned to the past in their decorating schemes, recreating thousands of past ornaments.

The emphasis on holiday decorating was nostalgic, family-centered Christmas ornaments. Ornaments were more than just decorative -- they also brought seasonal memories. Theme trees were the trend of the 80s and Victorian, southwestern, or nautical designs were all popular.

The trend in previous decades had been to sell ornaments by the box. This would no longer work since many Americans already had complete sets of decorations.Ornaments were once again sold individually and they were more expensive than ever. Electronic gadgets were the latest fad and Americans rushed out to buy the latest invention, a walking Santa ringing a bell.

Department stores created "Trim-a-Home" departments, catering to people who were spending more than ever to lavishly decorate their homes and trees. Stores began to set up their displays by the middle of October to cash in on Christmas sales. As expected, the decade proved to be a golden age for Christmas retailers.

Live trees made a comeback in the 1980s. The tradition of the family going together to a tree plantation to cut a live tree was reborn. A reason for the renewed interest in live trees was that only a short needled tree would do if you were attempting to decorate a tree to look like the trees of old.
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Christmas in the 1990s is both a family and a community celebration. Homes are decorated inside and out for the holiday season. Many families set up several trees each year, some decorated with themes and others full of nostalgic ornaments from the past.

Entire neighborhoods are decorated with magnificent Christmas lights and displays, and Americans have developed a new Christmas tradition -- slow drives through neighborhoods to marvel at the displays. Tree festivals and exhibits abound as people spend their spare hours looking at elaborately decorated Christmas trees.

Theme trees continue to be popular in the 90s. You can decorate your tree with your favorite football, basketball, or baseball team ornaments, light houses, sailboats, toy soldiers, or beautiful blown glass ornaments reminiscent of years past. There is a Christmas ornament to represent most anything. Many families purchase an ornament for their child or grandchild every year, so when they are grown, they have their own collection of special ornaments.

This decade also has seen a renewed interest in the display of miniature towns and villages. Entire villages are created, and each year buildings are retired to make room for the production of new ones. The scenes include detailed streets, ponds with ice skaters, people, and trains.

The retail Christmas season in the 1990s begins well before the holiday -- even before the Halloween merchandise is gone. People decorate their houses earlier than ever and leave the decorations up longer. No shopping day compares with the day after Christmas, when every one rushes out to the stores before sun-up to get a bargain price on new ornaments for the next year.

The celebration of Christmas has not changed as friends and family still gather together for baking, caroling, and opening presents around a Christmas tree adorned with decorations, some old, some new, but all with special meaning to those who placed them there. The styles of Christmas ornaments have changed through the years but the traditions remain the same.
God's Warrior

Christmas Future

What will the future hold for Christmas? If past and present are any evidence of things to come, Christmas in the new millennium will be a mixture of both old and new customs. One thing is a certainty -- we will continue to celebrate Christmas in America with enthusiasm!

What else can we predict? It is safe to say that many traditions and customs adopted through the years by Americans will continue for many years to come. The ornaments that we use to decorate the trees and our homes will probably change, but the meaning of Christmas will stay same.
Perhaps the tree is evocative of the shining star that guided the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem. Perhaps it symbolizes the starry night that guides Santa Claus on his journey to the homes of good boys and girls. We are inevitably drawn to thoughts of that first Christmas so long ago. Few men or women living in that biblical time could have imagined the world as it is today. It is just as difficult for us to predict what Christmas will be like in the future, but some things never change.

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