O Christmas Tree: the story behind the iconic evergreen

Not my cat. But I wish it was.

Is there anything that says Christmas more than a brightly lit Christmas tree? Whether small or tall, the color of the lights or what type of ornaments, there is nothing more beautiful than a twinkling tree in a darkened room. But its not just the sight of the tree that evokes the Christmas spirit. I remember growing up and the day after Thanksgiving was always tree day. Dad would haul down these boards that the tree would stand on, where he would layout this village with a train running through it. Mom would decorate the tree while Christmas music played. My brother and I would always get to pick out a new ornament every year. No matter what issues and anger filled the rest of the year, that was a day of happiness, cheer and hope. a day that will always live in my memory as one of the good ones.

While Christmas has long been adopted by those not of a Christian faith, the term Christmas came from the early Christians to come together and celebrate Jesus’ birth so it may shock some to learn that many of the traditions we associate with Christmas came not from the Christian religion, but from much earlier cultures. In fact, at different times during the centuries, Christmas was banned as supporting and celebrating pagan rituals.

Holly and the Ivy

Long before the Christmas tree, evergreen plants have been a symbol of life in the dark of winter. The Winter Solstice, solstice meaning ” sun stand still” (3), was the day of the year where night was the longest. To early cultures who lived or died according to the whims of nature, it must have seemed like the culmination of all that was evil. Evergreens like holly, ivy, and firs must have been a shining beacon in a landscape of bare branches and snow.

A holly branch

Many ancient cultures would adorn their homes and altars during the winter with different types of evergreens. In Egypt, where they worshipped the sun god Ra, they used palms. The Celtic druids would use mistletoe, holly and ivy. The Celts would also make evergreen boughs out of fir and pine. Other cultures and religions made use of evergreen boughs as well, including the Buddhists and Vikings (1).

As Christianity moved into these regions, many of the already established traditions and practices were absorbed into the new one. There are arguments about whether this was done to usurp the traditions and take them over or was locals adopting Christianity and folding it into their existing lives. Either way, we find records of evergreen boughs finding the way into church celebrations.

A tree is born

There are many theories as to where the symbol we have come to know as the Christmas free came from.

One theory comes from early 15th and 16th century church records from rural England that describe evergreen boughs being used in the churches at Christmastime. In Judith Flander’s “Christmas: A Biography”, she talks about villagers decorating with holly and ivy, which is where the famous Christmas Song comes from.

“The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown”

Judith also talks about how villagers would weave holly, ivy and evergreen boughs around a pole, like a winter form of a maypole.

Another theory is that Martin Luther, the German theologian who was a driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, created the Christmas tree (1,2). One night after walking home in the dark and upon seeing stars twinkling through the branches of an evergreen tree, he went home and put candles in a tree to mimic the effect for his family (1). A twist on this says he created the tree to represent God’s love (2).

Another similar theory is about another divine individual called St. Boniface. It was said that he came upon a pagan sacrificing a human and stopped it by cutting down the oak tree (oak trees being sacred to many including the Celtic Druids). After Cutting down the tree, a fir tree grew in its place. St. Boniface believed that the branches represent Christ’s “eternal truth” (2).

While the true origin story might never be known, many Scholars agree that the first instance of a tree resembling our modern tree is in Germany in the 15th Century (1,2). One source dated it as close as 1419 in Freiburg (2). There are records showing trees being used in Passion Plays to celebrate the feast of Adam and Eve that occurred on Christmas Eve. These trees were often decorated with apples, flour paste wafers, tinsel and gingerbread. If trees were scarce, the people would make pyramids out of wood, wrap them in evergreen boughs and then decorate them (2).

Coming To The U.S.A.

It might seem like Christianity and the Christmas tree were tied together from the start, but for many Christians in early America, the trees were seen as a pagan ritual that was either distracting or blaspheming the reason for celebrating Christmas. In 1659, Massachusetts even passed a law forbidding any type of Christmas decoration from being displayed. This belief that Christmas was pagan stayed with the Puritans well into the 1840s (1).

But as more immigrants, especially German immigrants, came to the United States they brought their traditions with them.  We see the first mentions of Christmas trees in the United States around 1747, being used within a colony of Pennsylvania Germans (1). In 1805, Judith mentions a reference to a missionary school for indigenous people telling their students to “go fetch a small green tree for Christmas”. Other mentions spread into the Midwest and West as immigrants continued migrating across the land that would become the United States (2,4). In 1923, the first National Tree was erected, pushed by the Society for Electrical Development as a grand display to show the splendors of electricity. It was originally supposed to have been at the White House, but because of scheduling conflicts was erected at the “White Lot” of the Ellipse (5). In 1931, the first Rockefeller tree was erected, shining as a beacon of hope at the end of the Great Depression (2).

The evolution of the Tree

Tree decorations were often made from natural things in the environment. In 1419, a tree was recorded in Freiburg as being decorated with apples, flour paste wafers, tinsel and gingerbread (2). In 1605 we find the first recorded decoration of an indoor tree in Strasbourg, decorated with roses, apples, wafers and other sweets (2,4).

The vision of the tree grew into the one we think of today in 1848 when an engraving was made of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathered around the tree with their children, the base of the tree surrounded by presents. The image inspired others to copy the Queen and soon everyone’s trees were surrounded by presents (2).

The tree further evolved in 1964 with the advent of plastic trees. In 2018, almost 82% of trees purchased were plastic (2).

When you don’t have space, you make do. I like our tiered tree setup. The ornaments are mementos of vacations.

The history of the Christmas tree is a long and winding one from its beginnings as evergreen boughs during the winter solstice. It’s an endearing vision of hope, light, happiness and joy. To me, the Christmas tree has transcended any religious affiliation it might have or had. In my house, it is a celebration of light, love, hope and the life my partner David and I are leading together. It is a tree of memories, and a tree of dreams of future adventures. Merry Christmas/Solstice/Holidays everyone!


  1. Dy, Glory (November 16, 2022) “Does the Christmas Tree have Pagan Origins” retrieved from https://www.christianity.com/wiki/holidays/what-is-the-origin-of-the-christmas-tree.html
  2. Waxman, Olivia B (December 21, 2020) “How Christmas trees became a holiday tradition” Times magazine, retrieved from https://time.com/5736523/history-of-christmas-trees/
  3. McGowan, Brian (December 15, 2020) “Christmas and the Celtic Winter Solstice: Roots Entwined” The Examiner News retrieved from https://www.theexaminernews.com/christmas-and-the-celtic-winter-solstice-roots-entwined/
  4. Flanders, Judith (October 30, 2018) “Christmas: A Biography” Pan Macmillan UK
  5. “1923 National Christmas Tree” retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/whho/learn/historyculture/1923-national-christmas-tree.htm#:~:text=1923%20marked%20the%20first%20year,Tree%22%20by%20the%20following%20year.

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