For thousands of years, the evergreen fir tree has been a part of both Pagan and Christian winter celebrations. Pagans decorated their homes with pine branches during the winter solstice, the Romans used fir trees to deck out their temples for the festival of Saturn, and Christians used pine trees as a symbol of eternal life with their Savior.
Germany Started the Tree Tradition
The Christmas tree tradition that we know today began in the 16th century in Germany when Christians brought decorated pine trees into their homes. Some Germans built wooden Christmas pyramids and then decorated them with candles and evergreen branches. It’s believed that Martin Luther was the first person to add lighted candles to a tree.
The first Christmas trees came to the United Kingdom in the 1830s. They gained massive popularity in 1841 after Prince Albert had a Christmas tree displayed in Windsor Castle. In 1848, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle.” In December 1850, Godey’s Lady’s Book in Philadelphia republished the drawing, although they took out Prince Albert’s mustache and the Queen’s crown to make the illustration look more American.
Americans Welcomed It in the 19th Century
As many 19th century Americans found Christmas trees to be an odd practice, they were one of the last Christian populations to adopt the tradition. Most likely the tradition came to the United States during the American Revolution with Hessian troops or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania. However, the country didn’t take to the idea until the mid 19th century. By 1900, 20% of American families had Christmas trees. However, by 1920 the concept had become widespread.
During the Victorian era, most trees were decorated with candles, which represented stars. Many areas of Europe still decorate their trees with candles. Tinsel originated in Germany, where it was first created from thin beaten silver strips.