The Storied Life of Christmas Trees

The history of Christmas trees is often traced back to the story of St. Boniface, the English monk who went to Germany in the seventh century to preach. Legend claims that he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity. And so the evergreen became a symbol of Christianity.

However, some historians trace the origins back to the Egyptians, who used trees and boughs in celebration of the winter solstice and of life's triumph over death. The Druids used sprigs of evergreen holly in the house to symbolize eternal life. The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia, in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. In a celebration remarkably similar to Christmas traditions, they decorated their houses with lights and exchanged gifts of coins, pastry and lamps.

The first decorated Christmas tree dates back to 1510 in Riga, Latvia. Early Christmas trees were decorated with paper, fruits and sweets. By 1531, the first Christmas tree retail lots started in German cities.

By the 1600s people began expanding their decorating by using ribbon, tin shapes, small books, lace, dolls and food. In Germany in 1561 an ordinance was passed limiting the size of trees cut to 8 feet. Around 1610, tinsel was invented in Germany using real silver, a tradition until the mid-20th century when tinsel was manufactured using different materials.

In the 18th century the first recorded Christmas tree decorated with lit candles was noted. Although some historians trace the lighted Christmas tree to Martin Luther, who attached lighted candles to a small evergreen tree to try to simulate the reflections of the starlit heaven ' the heaven that looked down over Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve.

In 1777, while our nation reached a pivotal moment in its quest for independence, so too did the history of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree was brought to Colonial America by Hessian troops fighting for Britain in the Revolutionary War. On Christmas Eve in 1776 some of the 30,000 German mercenaries hired to aid British troops were close to defeating Gen. George Washington's troops. They were in a joyful mood and decided to celebrate with food, songs and decorated trees. Early on December 26, Washington and his army attacked and were able to defeat their usually well-prepared foes. So do we owe our nation's independence to the decorating of a Christmas tree? Perhaps. After the Revolutionary War, some Germans stayed in the U.S. and shared their traditions with their neighbors.

By 1804 U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn, now Chicago, brought evergreen trees into their barracks at Christmas.

In 1842 Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of a decorated Christmas tree in Williamsburg, Va. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the first Christmas trees appeared in England after Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German nobleman. The royal family was portrayed in the castle standing around a decorated tree. And so the English people took their cue from the monarch.

In 1851 Mark Carr, an entrepreneur from the Catskill Mountains, began cutting down fir and spruce trees that grew in abundance and were virtually free. He filled two oxcarts with trees and opened the first retail Christmas tree lot in the United States in New York City's Washington Market. The first trees sold for 5 and 10 cents. Larger trees (8 to 10 feet) sold for a quarter. His family continued the business until 1898.

In 1901 the first Christmas tree farm was started with the planting of 25,000 Norway spruces near Trenton, N.J. The trees were harvested in 1908 and sold for $1 each.

And by 1856 Franklin Pierce, our 14th president, brought the first Christmas tree into the White House. By 1923 President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, now held every year on the White House lawn. Beginning in 1966 members of the National Christmas Tree Association started the tradition of presenting a real Christmas tree each year to the president and his family.