The history of Christmas trees goes back to the symbolic use of evergreens in ancient Egypt and Rome.
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon, farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking towards his home one winter evening, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and placed lighted candles on its branches.
German immigrants had brought the custom of Christmas trees to Britain with them in the early 1800s but the practice didn’t catch on with the locals.
It wasn’t until the time of Queen Victoria that celebrating Christmas by bearing gifts around a fir tree became a worldwide custom. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. After Queen Victoria, an extremely popular monarch, started celebrating Christmas with fir trees and presents hung on the branches as a favor to her husband, the lay folk immediately followed suit. The publication of the drawing helped Christmas trees become popular in the UK and USA.
Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S.
Commercial electricity (late 1800s – early 1900s) brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees become popular, appearing in town squares across the country, and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.
It took a long time before the Christmas tree became an integral part of American life. President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House during the mid-1850s. President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.