The History of the Christmas Tree: How It Became a Symbol of Holiday Joy

A Yuletide icon.

The Christmas tree is one of the best parts of the entire holiday season. It's a beloved Christmas tradition to gather together with loved ones and decorate your tree to kick off the holiday season. Families either use a real tree (there are multiple types of Christmas trees with their own special perks) or fake trees just as magical as the real thing. You can hang Christmas lights, ornaments and more from the branches to bring a little festive cheer inside your home.

Excited children wake up on Christmas morning to see what presents Santa Claus left for them the night before. The tree is as synonymous with the holiday season as Ol' Saint Nick himself. But what is the actual history of Christmas trees and their first association with the Christmas season? Here's a full rundown on how it became the symbol of the season, how it became part of Santa's story and how it's slowly modernized over the years. 

The Origins of the Christmas Tree

The first Christmas tree that has been recorded dates all the way back to Germany (now part of France) in 1576 on a sculpture of a private home. Some of the earliest possible origins of the tree include 16th-century Protestant Christian reformer, Martin Luther, who would add lit candles to evergreen trees. 

Other potential origins include the story of the "paradise tree," which were plays put on in Medieval times held on December 24 for Adam and Eve. Apples were placed on the tree (similar to the apple in the Garden of Eden), as well as wafers (for the Eucharist). Eventually, the trees made it into the homes and the apples were replaced with red balls. The early ornaments!

Another potential origin story dates back to the Middle Ages.  Evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands symbolized eternal life and were worshipped by the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Hebrews and the Vikings. Over time, the once pagan symbol changed into a tradition with elements of Christianity. People would decorate their homes with greenery to ward off evil spirits. This was also similar to the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, in which homes were decorated with greenery. 

The tradition of actually decorating a single tree with ornaments and Christmas tree lights first gained widespread recognition in Britain. As a child, Queen Victoria received her own decorated Christmas tree in her room every year. After her marriage to Prince Albert, the tradition spread outside of just the royal family. The upper class caught on and when an illustrated book, The Christmas Tree, was published in 1844 with instructions on how to put together your own tree, it helped spread the Christmas tradition throughout Germany. 

History of the Christmas Tree in the United States

** FILE ** Construction workers line up for pay beside the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York in this 1931 file photo. The Christmas tree went on to become an annual tradition and a New York landmark. St. Patrick's Cathedral is visible in the background on Fifth Avenue.

(AP Photo/The first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York)

The Christmas tree became popular in the United States in the early 19th century. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's tree at Windsor Castle was published in The Illustrated London News in 1848, and copied in 1850, in Godey's Lady's Book. It was believed to be "the first influential American Christmas tree." It's believed that August Imgard, a German immigrant who relocated to Ohio, was the first to spread the method of decorating a tree with candy canes in 1847. There are various other accounts of German settlers coming to America in the early 1800s and decorating trees at Christmas time with tinsel and baubles. 

White House Christmas Trees

Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt (at the right) sings with children in a program of Christmas carols before an outdoor Christmas tree, in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 21, 1944.

(AP Photo/Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. in 1944)

The 20th century first introduced popular public Christmas trees, like the annual tree in Rockefeller Center and the National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn.

The first White House Christmas tree was placed in the Yellow Oval Room during the Benjamin Harrison administration in 1889. Following the Harrison administration, the White House Christmas tree tradition often depended on the presence of children in the house.

In 1923, Calvin Coolidge was the first president to reside over a National Christmas tree lighting ceremony.  Since the Kennedy administration, themes have been selected for the Christmas tree in the Blue Room.

During the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, the National Christmas Tree was left dark except for the top star.

Modern Christmas Trees

Modern Christmas trees have evolved over the years, but the decorated green tree as a symbol of joy every December remains constant. Traditionalists love the real trees that you can smell throughout your home but these days, the fakes are so good you'll barely be able to tell the difference. You can also get fake trees in various colors and even real trees covered in fake snow...the possibilities are endless when it comes to getting your home ready for the holidays. Regardless of your tree of choice, maybe you'll look at it a little differently this year after knowing where the tradition may have started.

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