Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
You would never know it by looking around at our community today, but having a Christmas tree in the home is a relatively new concept in the U.S.
The Germans are commonly credited with starting the tradition of Christmas trees, but use of evergreen branches in and around the home during the dark winter months has ancient origins.
Many pagan beliefs commonly described winter as the time when the sun-god grew weak. The winter solstice was the longest winter night and shortest day, after which the sun-god would begin to get well in time for spring. Evergreen boughs were often displayed on doors and windows, indoors and out. These plants were considered mystical since they stayed green throughout winter, but they also served as a reminder of the promise of spring after the dark winter. They were also thought to ward off evil spirits and illness.
Legend says that the evergreens became linked to Christianity when St. Boniface cut down an oak tree that pagans were worshipping, and a fir tree sprung up in its place. Also, a 7th century monk in Germany used the triangular shaped fir tree to explain the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the early 16th century, Martin Luther is credited with having created the first decorated Christmas tree in an attempt to recreate a scene of stars twinkling in the evergreen forest for his family.
Christmas trees were unwelcome in colonial America. New England Puritans saw them as pagan symbols, and enacted laws forbidding them and other "frivolous" Christmas decorations in their settlements. The only observance of Christmas allowed was attending church services.
By the 19th century, the influx of German immigrants made it nearly impossible to curtail the Christmas tree tradition. Coupled with the fact that the popular Queen Victoria of England was pictured in newspapers with her family gathered around a Christmas tree, soon Christmas trees were all the rage in England. The trend spread like wildfire first to the trendy East Coast socialites in the U.S., later trickling down to all levels of society.