The history of Christmas trees and the practice of decorating them with Christmas lights and Christmas ornaments started nearly 1400 years ago in Germany. While December 25th was officially designated as the day all Christians would celebrate the birth of Christ each year by Pope Julius the First around 300 A.D., it took another three hundred years for the tradition of the Christmas tree to be used in conjunction with the Christmas holiday.
It is believed that around 600 A.D. an English monk who was traveling throughout Europe to spread the word of Christianity developed the idea of using the fir tree as a symbolic interpretation of Christian beliefs. While he was in Germany converting the people to Christianity, he pointed to the fir tree, a triangular shaped tree that is common in Germany, and explained the meaning of the Holy Trinity. The triangular shape of the fir tree represented the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and the Germans began calling the fir tree the Tree of God. The Germans began displaying the fir tree in their homes as an expression of their faith at Christmastime, but it was initially hung inside the home upside-down and there were no Christmas lights or Christmas ornaments used to decorate these trees at the time. Over time the Germans began displaying their trees upright, but it has remained a symbol of the Holy Trinity.
The tradition of decorating the Christmas tree with lights and ornaments did not begin until the 1500s. The first written account of a decorated Christmas tree was in 1510 in Riga, Latvia. Shop owners decorated a Christmas tree with roses and placed it in the market to attract customers. Dances were performed around the decorated Christmas tree and it was eventually set on fire. The white rose was considered a symbol for the Virgin Mary and this rose covered tree became the very first one that was decorated with Christmas ornaments of some sort. During this same time in Riga, it is said that the very first lighted Christmas tree was invented. Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran Church, is credited with being the first one to place lights on the Christmas tree. Luther wanted to impress his children and show them how the stars twinkle so brightly in the sky, so he attached lighted candles to the branches of their Christmas tree with melted wax. People combined the roses and the candles and started decorating their own Christmas trees with Christmas ornaments and lighted candles during the Christmas season.
In Germany, during the 1600s, as Christmas celebrations and traditions exploded throughout the countryside, apples became a popular Christmas ornament choice. December 24th was traditionally known as Adam and Eve Day and many churches put on what they called Miracle Plays that were used to spread the teachings of the Bible to the illiterate masses. During these plays evergreen boughs with apples attached to them were used as props. Germans began using apples in addition to the roses as regular Christmas ornaments. From that point on the Germans began decorating their Christmas trees with every conceivable Christmas ornament object they could find, particularly ornaments made out of fruits to represent the Tree of Paradise in the Garden of Eden. Red flowers were used to symbolize knowledge and white ones were used to symbolize innocence. Gingerbreads, wafers, hard candies, nuts, pretzels, and wax candles were all used as Christmas ornaments and the German tradition of decorating Christmas trees took off.
By the 1700s, the practice of decorating Christmas trees with Christmas lights and ornaments had spread throughout Europe. Edible Christmas ornaments were so popular that Christmas trees began being referred to as Sugar Trees. However, it was during this time that German artisans began making and selling non-perishable Christmas ornaments out of wax, paper, metal, and wood. People began buying and collecting these handcrafted Christmas ornaments because they could be used year after year rather than having to make new Christmas ornaments each year. It was not until the 1800s, however, that glass blown Christmas ornaments were produced using glass molds that allowed German artisans the ability to quickly and easily produce large amounts of delicate glass Christmas ornaments to be used in decorating the ever-popular Christmas tree. Today, German ornaments are still made by these original Christmas ornament-making families and are considered the best in the world.
The Christmas tree was not used as a Christmas decoration in the United States until German immigrants brought the tradition with them in the early 1800s. Christmas trees were sold commercially in the United States for the first time in 1851 and they were randomly taken from the surrounding forests. Due to Puritan beliefs at the time, Christmas was not a widely celebrated holiday in the United States. However, as German and other settlers began displayed their decorated Christmas trees during the holiday season the practice soon spread throughout the country. In 1880, F.W. Woolworth purchased a few German ornaments and placed them in his store for sale. They sold out immediately and Woolworth placed an order for thousands more to be sold the following year. By 1890, Woolworth was selling $25 million worth of handcrafted German ornaments at just five and ten cents each.
In 1901, the very first Christmas tree farm was started in New Jersey with 25,000 Norway spruce trees being planted. The practice of cutting down trees for the use in Christmas decorations was not supported by everyone and that same year President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to make the practice illegal out of concern for the destruction of forest lands. A study was done and conservationists convinced Roosevelt that if done properly the Christmas tree industry posed no threat to the existing forests.
Today, all 50 states grow Christmas trees for the express purpose of being cut down and decorated with hundreds of Christmas ornaments and lights. Nearly 35 million Christmas trees are sold in the United States each year. The most popular Christmas trees grown are Balsam, Douglas, Fraser, and Noble firs, as well as Scotch, Virginia, and White pines. There are half a million acres of land being used to grow Christmas trees, over 21,000 growers, and the industry provides jobs for more than 100,000 people in the United States alone. It takes anywhere from 4 to 15 years to grow the average Christmas tree and for each tree that is harvested, 3 are planted in its place. The Christmas tree industry is good for the environment as well because for each acre of land that is used to grow Christmas trees, there is enough daily oxygen produced for 18 people.
As a result, Christmas trees and the practice of decorating them with twinkling Christmas lights and beautiful Christmas ornaments has become a multi-billion dollar industry that brings a smile to the faces of children everywhere. So, this holiday season when you are decorating your beautiful seven-foot Christmas tree with all those lights and ornaments, remember the long and fascinating history that goes along with it all.