Christmas tree in the museum with handmade decorations

O Christmas Tree

Author: RoAnn Bishop

Southern Balsam [Fraser fir] pulled from open. 18 when planted in April 1924. Ed Wilson, Park Warden, the in background. Located in Mount Mitchell State Park. From Wikimedia Commons


When I was growing up in western North Carolina’s mountains, my family’s Christmas tree was usually a white pine Dad cut from the hillside behind our house. Strung with multi-colored lights and decorated with Shiny Brite ornaments, it stood proudly inside a galvanized tub in front of our living room picture window. We had to keep it watered (thus the reason for the galvanized tub), and Mom fussed about its needles shedding. But there was something special about that simple pine tree. Decades later, I still can recall its fresh, forest-y fragrance.

The tradition of the Christmas tree, as we know it today, is relatively new. But its roots date back to ancient times and incorporate numerous folk traditions. In most pre-Christian cultures across Europe and Britain, people held feasts and festivals in late December to celebrate the winter solstice and the new solar year’s beginning. Evergreens, symbolizing everlasting life, played an important role in those pagan festivities. back Christians initially prohibited greenery at their Nativity celebrations, which they chose to hold in December since the actual date of Christ’s birth was unknown and they wanted their religious holiday to overshadow the pagan rituals.

The association of trees with Christmas may have begun with the “paradise tree” during the Middle Ages. Decorated with apples, these evergreen trees were the principal stage props in medieval miracle plays performed at Christmastime to honor Adam and Eve. 
Today’s Christmas tree is likely the descendant of the paradise tree and the German lichtstock, a wooden pyramid trimmed with evergreen sprigs, Nativity figures, and candles. The first record of decorated trees being set up in parlors at Christmas dates to 1605 in the Alsatian town of Strasbourg. By the late 1700s, 

drawing of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decorating their Christmas tree
Christmas tree at Windsor Castle / drawn by J.L. Williams. England London, 1848. Photograph. From the Library of Congress.

Christmas trees were becoming common throughout Europe. The tradition came to America with German settlers in the early 1800s. The Christmas tree really caught on in this country in 1850, when an American newspaper reprinted an illustration of Queen Victoria’s lavishly decorated tree at Windsor Castle.  Admirers of the royal family imitated the scene in their own homes, using fruits, cookies, nuts, and paper flowers to decorate their trees. By 1856, a Christmas tree was set up in the White House, complete with greenery and ornaments.

Although commercially made ornaments didn’t become available in America until the 1870s, the Christmas tree’s place in American traditions had been established. 



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