Christmas Celebration Folklore

Vol. I No. 2 - WINTER 1988

Each year 30 million American families bring a natural Christmas tree into their homes to become the warm and glowing center of their Christmas celebration. The tradition endures year after year, but how did it get started?

Historians trace countless roots that grew into our present day custom of using a Christmas tree. Legends tell of the decorated tree in winter celebrations long before there was a Christmas.

Egyptians brought palm branches into their homes in late December as a symbol of growing things. Romans trimmed trees with trinkets and topped them with an image of their sun god to celebrate Saturnalia. Druid sorcerers hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees to celebrate the winter solstice. In the middle ages, the feast of Adam and Eve was held on December 24th; a fir tree hung with red apples called the Paradise tree was its symbol.

It is generally agreed, however, that the use of an evergreen tree as part of the Christian Christmas celebration started 400 years ago in Germany and spread to most of northern Europe by the 19th century.

Hessian mercenaries during the American Revolutionary War brought the custom to the United States. In 1804, soldiers at Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) hauled trees to their barracks during Christmas.

A Philadelphia newspaper story, printed in 1825, commented on decorated trees in German immigrant homes during a Christmas season. In 1842, a German named Charles Minnegerode introduced the custom in Williamsburg, Virginia. His tree was described as "splendidly decorated" with strings of popcorn, gilded nuts and lighted candles.

The first recorded Christmas tree retail lot was set up in 1851 by a Pennsylvanian named Mark Carr, who hauled two ox sleds loaded with trees from his land in the Catskills to the sidewalks of New York.

There is little doubt that the trees he brought were Balsam firs, which remained the best selling and most popular type of tree until 1955 when it was nudged out by the lush western Douglas fir and Scotch pine produced on tree farms in the Eastern United States.

Meanwhile, in Victorian England, Prince Albert, husband of queen Victoria, gave the Christmas tree the stamp of acceptability in England when he introduced it into the Royal Palace. On the other side of the Atlantic, the 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce, was the first President to set up a Christmas tree in the White House. But it wasn’t until 1923 that President Calvin Coolidge established the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn that has since become part of the annual holiday observance.

The enduring tree symbol - which is even older than Christianity and not attached exclusively to any one religion - remains a firmly established part of our holiday customs, engaging not only our senses of sight, touch and smell, but also our sense of tradition. The tree evokes a mood of holidays from long ago, of the genial ghost of Christmas Past.