Christmas Trees

Posted on in Todd Talks by Todd Johnson

Have you ever wondered where and when the tradition of putting trees in our homes for the Christmas holiday started? It’s an odd tradition if you think about it. The roots loosely can be traced back to before Christmas existed.

Evergreens and green plants in general have long held a special meaning to people, especially in the dead of winter. The weather turns colder and grass loses its characteristic bright green hue. Leaves fall off deciduous trees and the landscape becomes a canvas of browns, grays, and whites. Yet, dotting the landscape is the hardy green of conifers and the like. These plants often were used throughout history to decorate homes in the winter. Some people even believed that indoor trees and plants could be used to ward off all sorts of evil and illnesses. The smell of pine is still thought of as refreshing and clean. Green plants in winter symbolized life, giving people hope and reminding them of the beauty of summer. This went on long before the advent of Christianity and continued into the Egyptian empires with palm fronds in homes to celebrate the winter solstice, and, during the Roman Empire the Romans decorated temples with evergreen boughs to celebrate and look forward to the farms and green fields of summer. 

The current (or close to it) manifestation of Christmas trees is credited to 17th Century Germans. More specifically, Martin Luther. It is told that on a walk home one night in winter he was awed at the beauty of a twinkling backdrop of stars amongst the evergreens. He was so moved that, after arriving home, he cut down a tree, brought it inside, and decorated its branches with candles to recreate the scene for his family.

In America, having a tree indoors an oddity.  The first recorded presentation of a Christmas tree in the United States occurred in the 1830’s.  Again, Germans receive the credit. Many immigrated and settled in the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. PA is still famous for its Pennsylvania Dutch, so it’s fitting that our first account of an American Christmas Tree comes from here. After all, at the time, most of Americans saw Christmas trees as pagan symbols. It wouldn’t be until the 1890’s that Americans would begin warming to the idea. And while Christmas trees in Europe tended to be only about four-feet tall, Americans liked their Christmas trees to be bigger. Floor to ceiling was the desired height. The now-famous Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree was first displayed in 1931 and was a small plain tree that was placed on a construction site. It wasn’t until two years later that lights were added. 

Today, Christmas trees have become a big business. They’re grown in all 50 states, and the industry employs about 100,000 people. Now, it’s hard to imagine Christmas without a tree.  However, when I recall my own childhood Christmases, what I remember most are the family activities. Sure, I know a tree was there, but I can’t recall a single tree more than any other. What I do remember is caroling with friends, making cookies with my mom and sister, watching Christmas movies, blowing on the tinsel from across the room with my dad to see whose breath would get there first. So many memories. Such a wonderful time of year.