Christmas trees are believed to have originated in Germany in the sixteenth century. There are several legends concerning the origin of the Christmas tree.
The primitive cultures of northern Europe believed that evergreens possessed god-like powers. The evergreen tree also symbolized immortality. The Germanic peoples would bring evergreen boughs into their homes during winter to insure the protection of the home and the return of life to snow-covered forest. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, eventually the evergreen tree was transformed into a Christian symbol.
Some believe the Christmas tree evolved from the Paradise Tree of the Middle Ages. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, evergreen trees played an important role in miracle and mystery plays. One such play dramatized the fall of Adam and Eve and was performed on December 24. On stage during the play was a Paradise Tree (an evergreen with red apples hung from its branches).
Others believe that the Christmas tree began with Martin Luther. According to legend, Martin Luther was inspired by the beauty of the twinkling stars and stately evergreens on Christmas eve. In an attempt to duplicate the scene, he cut down an evergreen, brought it home, and decorated it with candles.
German immigrants and Hessian soldiers hired by the British to fight the colonists during the American Revolution are thought to have brought the Christmas tree tradition to the United States.
Christmas Tree Trivia
- According to a national survey conducted by the National Christmas Tree Association, 31 percent of U.S. households purchased a real Christmas tree in 2000, 49 percent displayed a artificial tree, while 21 percent had no type of tree in their home.
- In the nineteenth century, most Americans cut their Christmas tree from nearby forests. Today, 98 percent of all trees are grown on farms.
- An estimated 34 to 36 million Christmas trees will be harvested in the United States in 2001.
- There are approximately 15,000 Christmas tree growers in North America. In Iowa, there are about 100 choose and cut tree farms.
- Oregon is the top Christmas tree producing state. In 2001, an estimated 8.3 million trees will be harvested in the state. North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin are the other top Christmas tree producing states.
- The top selling Christmas trees in the United States are balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine, and white pine. Scotch pine and white pine are the top selling Christmas trees in Iowa.
- The tradition of erecting a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center in New York City began in 1933. The Norway spruce erected in 2001 is 81 feet tall, 42 feet wide, weighs approximately 8 tons, and is decorated with 30,000 red, white, and blue bulbs.
- Lighting of the "National Christmas Tree" in Washington, D.C. began in 1923. On Christmas eve, President Calvin Coolidge pressed a button to light a cut 48-foot balsam fir. From 1924 to 1953, live trees, in various locations in and around the White House grounds, served as the National Christmas Tree. Cut trees were erected on the Ellipse from 1954 to 1972. Live trees returned in 1973. The current "National Christmas Tree" is a Colorado blue spruce that was donated by William and Helen Myers of York, Pennsylvania. It was planted in the Ellipse on October 20, 1978.
- While the "lighting" of the National Christmas Tree has been a tradition since 1923, there have been years when the tree was not lit. During World War II, the tree remained dark from 1942 to 1944. Only the top ornament was lit in 1979 in deference to the American hostages in Iran. In 1980, the tree was fully lighted for 417 seconds; one second for each day the hostages had been held in captivity.
- In 1926, Congress designated the General Grant sequoia tree (located in Kings Canyon National Park) as the "Nation's Christmas Tree." Proclaimed a National Shrine by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, the General Grant tree is a living memorial to the men and women of the United States who have given their lives in service to their country. Each year at the annual Christmas ceremony, park rangers place a large wreath at the base of the tree. The General Grant tree is over 267 feet tall, 40 feet across at its base, and over 107 feet in circumference. Estimates of its age range from 1,500 to 2,000 years.
This article originally appeared in the December 7, 2001 issue, pp. 126-127.