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What you might not know about the Christmas tree

One of the many decorated Christmas trees on display at the Festival of Trees in 2013 at the Fargodome. Forum News Service file photo1 / 2
European Christmas trees were usually small. Following the Protestant Reformation, they were often decorated with candles. Getty Images2 / 2

FARGO — It’s hard to imagine Christmas without the Christmas tree. It’s like Easter without the bunny or the Fourth of July without fireworks.

But what you might not know is that the tradition of putting a Christmas tree up in your home is relatively new to the United States — less than 200 years old, despite the fact that the idea of the Christmas tree goes back to ancient Egyptian times.

The origins

The birth of the Christmas tree was inspired by the belief that “greenery is life.” Even before the time of Jesus Christ, ancient people saw trees that stay green all year as good luck. They believed evergreens, with their life-sustaining properties even during the coldest, darkest days of winter, could ward off evil.

In fact, according to researchers at History.com, ancient people thought winter came every year because the sun god got sick. Bringing evergreens into the home on the winter solstice was a way to celebrate that, in the coming days, the sun god would get stronger and, once again, green plants would grow and flourish.

First real tree

But hanging greenery in the home is far different than setting up an entire tree. So when did the first tree appear?

According to historians, the first documented use of a tree in a Christmas celebration happened in what is now Estonia and Latvia in 1510. The tree was put up in the social and religion center of Riga by a group of young, unmarried merchants and ship captains who called themselves “The Blackhead’s Brotherhood Fraternity.” Their records show they decorated a tree for Christmas with ribbons, dried flowers, straw dolls and fruit.

An essay from 1584 chronicles the young men putting up a tree in the market square where they danced and sang with local maidens. By the 1600s, devout Christians in Germany were bringing trees into their home and decorating them in honor of the baby Jesus.

Twinkling lights

Trees decorated with flowers and fruit would hardly light up the dark, winter night. So where did Christmas tree lights come from? Martin Luther.

To clarify, the Protestant reformer was never tangled in strings of multicolored bulbs, swearing like the father in “A Christmas Story.” Candles were his thing.

Historians say Luther was said to be walking home one winter evening when he was awed by the brilliance of the stars twinkling above the snow-covered evergreens. He tried to recreate the vivid scene by placing lighted candles on the Christmas tree in his home. The tradition continued for centuries.

Unlikely promoter

Britain’s Queen Victoria is considered to be one of the most influential rulers in the history of the world. But what people might not know is that she is largely responsible for bringing Christmas trees to England and America. (Not literally, of course — the queen was barely 5 feet tall).

When Victoria married Prince Albert of Germany, she encouraged him to carry on family traditions from his homeland, one of which was decorating a Christmas tree every year. The royal couple appeared in newspaper illustrations with their children sitting by the Christmas tree in 1846, and because they were so well-liked and popular, English subjects as well as Americans wanted to emulate them.

By the mid-1850s, the majority of Christian families in the United States put up trees every holiday season.

20th century changes

Christmas trees continued to gain popularity by the turn of the 20th century. Ornaments were mostly homemade and included berries, nuts and even strings of brightly colored popcorn. The wealthiest Americans purchased exquisite ornaments from Europe, but like today, many families still took the most pride in ornaments made by their school-age children.

Even though electric Christmas lights were available in the late 19th century, most people didn’t trust electricity and chose to keep decorating their trees with candles. After a few years, many fires and vastly improved technology, people slowly started to warm up to electric tree lights.

On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the country’s celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree south of the White House with 3,000 electric lights.

Real vs. fake

While artificial trees were around in the 1800s, made mostly of goose feathers, they weren’t very popular.

However, by the 1930s, a British company made the first artificial tree made from dyed green brush bristles. They were marketed as less mess, less flammable and sturdier for heavier ornaments. The first aluminum trees were manufactured in the 1950s and grew in popularity until 1965, when “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aired for the first time and portrayed artificial trees in a negative light. Sales fell through the '70s and '80s.

However, developments in materials, including fiber optics and high-end plastic, gave Christmas tree lovers new options, including pre-lit trees that take the hassle out of stringing lights.

Fast facts
  • As recently as the late 20th century, many Americans chose to put up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and take it down no later than Jan. 6th. Keeping it up longer than the 12th day of Christmas was considered to be bad luck. But these days, more Americans are choosing to put up their tree around Thanksgiving and take it down later in January. Some even keep it up through Valentine’s Day.
  • Europeans tend to have trees smaller than 4 feet tall, while Americans prefer floor-to-ceiling trees.
  • The first Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York was put up in 1931. Last year’s tree had 25,000 lights on it.
  • Christmas trees are grown in all 50 U.S. states.
Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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