Did you know that the first fake Christmas trees in the US were made from the same material as toilet brushes? Or that decorating fir trees was originally a German tradition that spread to the rest of Europe and the US?
Standing tall in the winter landscape, the evergreen fir tree has been a symbol of Christmas for more than 400 years.
Today, sparkling Christmas trees brighten up winter nights all around the world, but how did these traditions start and develop?
From Germany to the United States — Christmas Trees in the 17th and 18th Centuries
The tradition of decorating fir trees at Christmas began in Germany in the 1600s. A German manuscript from 1605 says that trees were decorated with “roses cut out of paper of many colors, apples, wafers, spangle-gold and sugar.”
The popular Christmas carol, “O Christmas Tree”, which admires the splendor of a fir tree, dates back to 16th Century Germany. It was originally a folk song called “Ach Tannenbaum”, which means “O Fir Tree”.
In 1824, new lyrics to the song were written by the German composer, Ernst Anschütz. The words of the modern English version of the carol are based on these lyrics.
It is thought that the custom of decorating Christmas trees was brought to the United States by German immigrants. The first reports of decorated trees came from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1747.
Christmas Trees Made from Toilet Brush Bristles and Feathers
The first fake Christmas trees in the US were manufactured from the same bristles as toilet brushes. The same machinery was also utilized.
The Addis Brush Company dyed the animal-hair bristles green and produced the first artificial Christmas trees in the 1930s.
Prior to that, the first fake Christmas trees in Europe had been made from the feathers of large birds such as turkeys, geese, swans, and ostriches.
Production started in Germany in the mid-1800s because the number of fir trees in the forests in Bavaria, southern Germany, had declined.
Although feather trees were popular for many years, they could only carry small, lightweight ornaments.
Christmas Trees Shining Bright with Twinkling Light
Brightening up the cold, dark winter nights, lights make Christmas trees look warm and welcoming.
At first, candles were used to light up Christmas trees. In the 16th Century, the preacher, Martin Luther, is said to have been the first person to illuminate a Christmas tree with candles.
After cutting down his tree in the forest after dark, brightly shining stars guided him home. This inspired him to light his tree with candles.
In 1882, Edward H. Johnson, a business partner of the inventor of the electric light bulb, Thomas Edison, was the first person ever to decorate his Christmas tree with a string of 80 red, blue, and white electric light bulbs.
It wasn’t common practice to illuminate trees with electric lights until the 20th century. The first boxed set of electric Christmas lights, produced by General Electric, went on sale to the public in 1903.
Perhaps the brightest Christmas tree of all time was the one in Malmedy, Belgium that was lit up spectacularly with 194,672 lights on December 10, 2010. The large, outdoor tree was illuminated by 350 garlands of 576 lights cascading down the tree.
Christmas Trees in the White House
Although Franklin Pierce was said to have brought a Christmas tree into the White House for the first time in the 1850s, Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have an official White House Christmas tree. It was placed in the Yellow Oval Room in 1889.
A few years later, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland’s children were enthralled by the red, white and blue electric lights illuminating the Christmas tree in the White House for the first time.
President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t have a White House Christmas tree because, as a conservationist, he didn’t agree with chopping down trees to be used as Christmas trees.
His son, Archie, did however manage to bring in a small tree, which he decorated and hid in a closet in the sewing room.
Since 1929, First Ladies of the United States have decorated the official tree in the White House, which stands in the Oval Blue Room. Lou Henry Hoover started this custom.
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of decorating the White House tree with a different theme each year. That year, the theme was the Nutcracker Suite ballet and the tree was decorated with angels, birds, toys, and characters from the ballet.
Christmas Trees in England
The first reported Christmas tree in England was on Christmas Day, 1800, when a decorated yew tree was admired by children at a party held by King George III and his German-born wife, Queen Charlotte.
The tree was lit up by candles and adorned with small packages of raisins, almonds, fruit and toys, which were given to the children.
The practice of decorating Christmas trees didn’t become popular in Britain until the 1840s, during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Together with her German husband, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria decorated a tall tree in Windsor Castle with candles, glass decorations imported from Germany, wax dolls, and edible decorations such as nuts, fruit and candies.
Every year since 1947, the Norwegian government has sent a large Christmas tree to the United Kingdom to say thank you for assisting Norway during World War II. The tree is displayed in Trafalgar Square in central London.
The Popularity of Christmas Trees Continues
Christmas trees continue to be an important part of the Christmas celebrations and they are as popular as ever.
Americans spent over $4.3 billion on Christmas trees in 2017, according to a poll carried out by Nieslen/Harris in association with the National Christmas Tree Association.
Over 27 million real trees and 21 million artificial trees were purchased. Consumers who bought real trees spent $75 per tree on average, while those purchasing fake trees spent a higher average amount of $107.
More than 10 different species of Christmas trees are grown in the United States. The most popular include the Scotch pine, the Douglas-fir and the Virginia pine.
If you like to trim your tree with a lot of heavy decorations, a tree with strong branches like the noble fir is a good choice.
If you or a family member are allergic to sap, the Leyland cypress is the best option. It doesn’t produce sap because it’s not a fir or pine tree.
When you’re decorating your Christmas tree this year, think of all the people who’ve done so before you, including presidents, kings and queens, and trillions of ordinary people.
It’s a tradition that’s stood the test of time and there’s no doubt that Christmas trees will continue to brighten winter nights for centuries to come.