A few years back, National Public Radio described newspaper Christmas ads of 100 years ago. At that time, only a few trees were available and sold for about $1. Evergreen twigs and such were selling for 25 cents. Production and marketing certainly had a long way to go then. In 1900 only one family in five had a Christmas tree. Most children saw them only in schools.
With that as a starting point, I was prompted to trace the ancient history of the practice of the celebratory use of an evergreen tree in centuries past in western Europe.
Here, starting with America, and delving back to Medieval times, makes for an interesting revelation of a heritage, one that is worthy of more engrossing general knowledge.
All through the 1800s during the peak of immigration to America, the tree had been seen here and there. It was displayed mostly by prominent or wealthy citizens, often those of German origin. German immigrants, on the whole, are credited with bringing the Christmas tree custom to America.
In the 1800s, the Christmas tree was such a novelty that public displays of it often drew crowds. Some charity organizations hit upon the idea of displaying the tree in order to raise money. In 1830 in New York city for example, the public paid 6 and ½ cents for tickets to see a decorated tree. Between 1900 and 1915, the custom spread rapidly through America, but even then it was more usual to find the tree on display in a community hall or church.
As a common tradition, the household Christmas tree in America is just about 100 years old. It is well known though that in northern Europe, bringing evergreen trees and boughs indoors in winter at the winter solstice (December 21) was a custom dating back many centuries. It probably started with primitive peoples who sought to symbolically bring back green life to the land.
In the Christian culture, there seems to be two origins for having a tree of some sort associated with Christmas. Both date back to medieval times. In the 1300s and 1400s, most persons could not read. Religious (“miracle”) plays were put on to tell the story of the scriptures. Before the showing of the play, as for example in the story of Adam and Eve, the actors paraded the streets and carried the “Paradise tree” decorated with real apples … the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. An evergreen tree was used because it was the only plant with leaves during the season of the miracle plays. This tree was also the only prop on the stage. Its image endured long after the miracle plays were no longer performed.
In another medieval custom, twigs of cherry and other flowering trees were brought indoors, kept in water and forced into bloom in time for Christmas… the symbolism being the renewal of life.
The idea of the Christmas tree in the nineteenth century is credited to Germany.
The young British Queen Victoria and her German husband, Albert, also helped to popularize the custom of decorating the tree. In both Germany and England, the trees were small (only 3 – 4 feet) and were set on a table. The floor-to-ceiling tree is unique to America. Here, of course, our supply of trees was greater than in Europe.
President Teddy Roosevelt, one of our first conservationists, was so alarmed at the rate of cutting trees for Christmas, that at one time he banned the tree from his home and urged others to do so as well. What would he have had to say about the millions of brilliantly lighted trees and miles of other holiday lighting so common today?
Happily for us today, special plantations supply millions of trees and millions of pounds of greenery for Christmas. History claims that the whole market was started in 1851 by a farmer from the Catskill Mountain region who set up his trees on a strip of New York City sidewalk which he had rented for a silver dollar!
Copyright © 2010 – Margaret Balbach