The tradition of Christmas trees goes back to Egyptian and Roman practices yet has become a crucial part of the way we celebrate Christmas today. According to an article on History.com, ancient people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes, similarly to how we put up Christmas trees today. Evergreens were believed to deter witches, evil spirits, and illnesses.
Ancient people, who believed that the sun was a god, thought that winter came because the sun god was weak and sick. Because of this belief, they celebrated winter solstice, which annually falls on December 21 or 22, because they believed that the sun god was finally healing. Particularly, they would celebrate the growth of evergreen boughs, which foreshadowed the greenery and shrubbery that would grow when the sun god was healthy again during the summer.
The ancient Egyptians and early Romans participated in this practice. The Egyptians worshipped a god named Ra, who wore the sun in his crown. During the solstice, they would decorate their houses with green palms to celebrate Ra's triumph over illness and death, welcoming the growth of life in the summer. The Romans celebrated the solstice with a feast they called Saturnalia, which honored their god of agriculture Saturn. They embraced Saturn's agriculture powers by embellishing their temples and homes with evergreen boughs.
Though these ancient civilizations decorated their homes with lively greenery during the solstice, Germany is actually where Christmas trees as we know them today first originated. Martin Luther, the German monk who sparked the Protestant Reformation with his "95 Theses," first added lights to Christmas trees, as he was walking home one winter evening and caught a glimpse of stars through the trees. He wanted to show his family the beauty of the image, so he recreated it by placing lighted candles in the branches of the tree in his family's main room.
In 19th-century America, people found Christmas trees odd. The German settlers in Pennsylvania set up community trees as early as 1747, yet these trees were seen as symbols of paganism, not Christianity. In fact, Massachusetts enforced a law that banned any other celebration of Christmas aside from going to church; people were fined for decorating trees, hanging decorations, and singing Christmas carols.
The turning point for Christmas trees in America was in 1846 when Queen Victoria and her family were depicted standing around a tree in the Illustrated London News. Instantly, the idea of Christmas trees was revolutionized and welcomed, as it was now seen as fashionable. In the early 20th century, Americans started using homemade ornaments to decorate their trees, and they utilized the invention of electricity in 1879 to use string lights on their Christmas trees, emulating the same idea as Martin Luther.
Today, picking out and decorating your Christmas tree is a family tradition. There are ornaments that have been passed down from generation to generation and that find their homes on a branch of the Christmas tree each and every year. Families gather together to string lights on the tree and place presents under it for Christmas Day. Add a new tradition to your annual decorating, and re-learn the history of Christmas trees!