Unearthing the origins of the Christmas tree

From Christmas stockings and mistletoe to smiling Santas and burning yule logs, the symbols of the season are so powerful that people seldom stop to think about their origins. But one of the most common symbols of Christmas — at least in the United States and Canada — is the twinkling Christmas tree, which is often depicted with piles of shiny gifts under its bottom branches.

While most of us take these kinds of holiday images for granted, many of us aren’t sure where the traditions started or how they became associated with Christmas. Whether you’ve always wondered about the origins of the Christmas tree or are simply in need of some seasonal small talk for this year’s holiday parties, the following should add some insight into the origins of this popular holiday tradition.

A growing tradition

In the U.S. and Canada, the Christmas tree has become one of the foremost symbols of the holiday season. But, the origin of the beloved holiday evergreen has been debated for centuries, with some historians asserting that it has Christian roots and others contending that its roots are pagan. However, many explanations trace the custom of having a decorated evergreen tree inside the home to 16th century Germany, while others go back 300 years earlier to a tradition that began with the Miracle Plays sponsored by local churches.

While its specific origin is unclear, we do know that the Christmas tree tradition spread first across Europe and then throughout the world. In the U.S., Christmas trees were first seen in communities with prominent German populations in the late 18th and early 19th century. Two communities in particular — Windsor Locks, Connecticut and Easton, Pennsylvania — lay claim to being the “birthplace” of the American Christmas tree tradition.

Throughout the world, Christmas trees are a symbol of the continuation of life through the dark, cold months of winter and are linked both to the winter solstice and the belief that the birth of Jesus brought light into the world. In many parts of the world, Christmas trees have long been set up and taken down according to the calendar. Traditionally, they were brought into the house on Christmas Eve and removed the day after Twelfth Night (January 6), and varying from these dates was considered bad luck.

Red + Green = Christmas

While the colors green and red are now synonymous with Christmas, the association of these colors with the holiday originally had nothing to do with Santa, elves or even mistletoe. Like so much holiday lore, the origins of the red-and-green Christmas theme have long been debated, but the explanation that appears to be most deeply rooted in fact begins in 14th century Europe, when Adam and Eve’s Day was celebrated each year on December 24. At that time, churches presented dramatic performances — called Miracle Plays — that were intended to teach religious topics to a largely illiterate population. For Adam and Eve’s Day, people gathered to watch the “Paradise Play,” which presented the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Since no apple trees were available in the middle of winter to represent the Tree of Good and Evil on stage, a pine tree with apples tied to its branches was used instead.

The use of a “makeshift” apple tree worked so well that many churches adopted its use. The “Paradise Tree” eventually became so popular in Germany that people started to erect evergreen trees in their homes and decorate them with red apples. Over time, the green of the trees and the red of the apples became widely associated with the celebration of Christmas.

Light up the holiday

Before the invention of the light bulb, families in many parts of the world brought light into their homes during the cold holiday season by placing candles in their Christmas trees. While this custom was extremely dangerous and caused many fires, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that most people had access to electric Christmas tree lights. Edward H. Johnson, a friend and business partner of Thomas Edison, was the first to string together lights for the purpose of decorating a Christmas tree in 1882. However, Christmas light kits were not available until 1903 and, until then, only very wealthy families could afford to light up their trees.

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