Christmas tree history, like most of the traditions associated with holiday, dates back hundreds of years, and has evolved over the centuries. Evergreens have always been an essential part of celebrations throughout the world, and this was particularly true in Germany, where people would use them to represent eternal life, health and good fortune. In the ancient world, the trees would be used in various religious rites, but sometime in the 700s AD, Christianity was brought to the people of Germany, and they started using the fir as a central element of their holiday celebrations.
The modern version of the tradition has its roots, so to speak, in the 16th century, the time of the Renaissance in early modern Germany. Martin Luther, the cleric behind the Protestant Reformation, is believed to be a central figure in Christmas tree history, as he was among the first to adopt it for modern religious celebrations. Every year, he would decorate the branches of an evergreen with candles and bring it indoors.
The evergreen would remain ensconced among Germans as part of the holiday tradition from then on, though its meaning would take on a mix of religious and cultural motifs.
The Christmas tree made its way to England in the early 19th century, and may have been adopted in its modern form at a holiday party hosted by George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburn-Strelitz. Charlotte was German-born, and used a full evergreen to celebrate the holiday at a party for children. Until then, the English were more likely to decorate their homes with evergreen branches, rather than a full tree. In a journal dated in 1832, the 13-year-old Queen Victoria described the annual tradition in the royal home of decorating a tree with lights and candies. The tradition would be adopted by the upper middle class in the 1840s, and from then on it would have a place every year for the English.
In America, modern Christmas tree history began with the Hessian German troops, which fought for the English during the Revolutionary War. They brought over the tradition, notably at Quebec in 1781. American troops would later adopt a version of the celebration and troops stationed at Fort Dearborn, Illinois used an evergreen in their celebration in 1804. Areas of the U.S. that Germans immigrated to were typically the first to make regular use of the evergreen for celebrating, though many of these communities each claim to have been the first to start the tradition in America. But no matter where it started, German immigrants popularized use of the Christmas tree during the early 1800s. In the mid-1800s, several national publications, including the extremely popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, brought the evergreen to public consciousness by reprinting an illustration originally published in The Illustrated London News, which depicted the British Royal family celebrating the holidays around an evergreen at Windsor Castle.
The tradition caught on among Americans living in the Eastern U.S. states during the 1850s, and in 1856, Franklin Pierce was the first U.S. president to set up an evergreen in the White House. From then on, it has been an essential part of Christmas tradition.