O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Much pleasure thou can'st give me.
Aside from the pristine smell of American forestry in your living room and, if you've been good, an avalanche of boxes to rip through on Christmas morning, you probably haven’t thought enough about Christmas trees to stop and examine their rich and evolving cultural history in America and beyond. Only a Snapple bottle fact collector would ever think to ask such seemingly obscure questions; or perhaps someone with more Christmas spirit than Tiny Tim (that would be me).
Whether you are celebrating Christmas now, you celebrated it in the past, or you've never celebrated Christmas at all, its voyage from Eastern European culture to its explosion in the American mainstream is truly a seasonal treat to learn about. Here are 8 interesting things about Christmas trees that you probably didn’t know:
Research any religion, cult, or ritual and you will find that there is something sacred about trees. This may not be as exclusively rooted in paganism as some traditionally argue, insofar as there is an innate quality of early traditions to apply religious significance to trees. As opposed to ‘mimicking’ paganism, a more accurate term may be ‘cross-cultural parallels.’ From our studies of ancient Egyptians and early Roman cults, it is understood that the evergreens’ ability to continue blooming through the coldest conditions drew veneration from primitive societies. Henceforth, during the Winter Solstice the sacred trees were cut down and bought into houses as a means to protect families as they ushered in the New Year. Many years later in the 14th century, Christians would use evergreens for Miracle Plays, particularly during the Christmas Eve tradition of dramatizing Adam and Eve’s encounter with the Tree of Life.
While Germany is typically credited for birthing the modern concept of Christmas trees, the first recorded account of a Christmas tree actually comes from Latvia and Estonia in 1510 and 1514 respectively. Every Christmas Eve, single foreign merchants would wear all black attire and carry rose-decorated-evergreens to the fraternal merchants’ guild at the House of Blackheads in the Baltic port city of Riga, Latvia. The gathering would culminate with the bachelor merchants setting the trees ablaze and dancing in circles around it as a toast for the New Year.
Christmas trees were officially recognized as a widespread tradition in the formerly German territory of Alsace in 1531 (it is now a part of France). It was there where we have our first accounts of undecorated trees being sold at public markets. There was such a high demand for Christmas trees in the region that there are records of local ordinances stating that “no person shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoe lengths (4 feet)." Thus, Christmas trees were traditionally small enough to sit atop a dinner table.
Mmm, nothing like waking up to some freshly baked ornaments and a fruit blossoming tree on Christmas morning — or at least until the widespread obsession with German glass ornaments that were popularized by New York toy wholesalers, the Elrich Brothers, in 1883. Before then, virtually all Christmas ornaments were edible! Flat gingerbread cakes, twisted pretzels (which originally symbolized the hand formation of prayer), matzebaum (a German wafer cake made with almond paste, sugar and egg whites), colored popcorn, nuts, sugar plums and fruits all hung from Christmas trees. Obviously, families had to eat them before they spoiled. While some families stored them until they grew stale, most would join their children in a Christmas tree feast at the end of the night. There is also a handful of early 16th century German folklore about trees being cut down on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), placed in a warm room, watered and then “forced” to bloom in time to yield cherries on Christmas day.
The first American Christmas tree was recorded in a German Moravian church settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1747. From then on, most accounts of American Christmas trees are rather spotty. It wasn’t until the 1820s that more consistent attestations of Christmas trees were being produced out of Philadelphia. In 1819, Philadelphia artist John Lewis Krimmel produced one of the first American sketches of an American family around a Christmas tree on the dinner table. The first news article on Christmas trees in a major American city can be found in an 1825 edition of Philadelphia’s Saturday Evening Post which described “trees visible through windows, whose green boughs are laden with fruit, richer than the golden apples of the Hesperides … ” Philadelphian Hermann Albrecht and Abram Mott are also credited for creating the first patents for Christmas tree stands on October 10, 1876. Before then, putting up a tree was literally like hell (especially considering that people experienced frequent fires since they used candles to light their trees).
What does the American Thanksgiving, Mary Had a Little Lamb, the advent of fashion journalism, and one of the first published Christmas Eve accounts of a Christmas tree that went from the floor to the ceiling have in common? If the answer you came up with was Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Hale, then you guessed correctly. In the December 1860 issue of Godey’s, Hale published a story by Lizzie McIntyre that describes a large Christmas tree in a widowed mother’s living room. Just a few years before that, the same publication published the first wide spread depiction of an American Christmas tree. The picture was a direct adaptation of London News illustration of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree. The difference? The family was American and had no royal British crowns.
Everyone loved trees, but not everyone could afford them. The Idea of placing trees in public display was common in Germany, but it was the entrepreneurial minds of Americans that capitalized on the popularity of Christmas trees to raise money for charity. In the 1830s, the Dorcas Society of York began charging 6-and-a-quarter-cents a pop for spectators to view their gorgeously lit trees. An 1840 ad in the York Pennsylvania Republican encouraged community members to purchase tree viewing tickets to support the charity in helping “the poor widows and friendless orphans.” For the longest time, churches, shelters and charities would use Christmas tree displays as fundraisers. In an ironic turn of the times, you can now find countless Americans doing fundraisers for Christmas trees.
Oregon and North Carolina have a virtual monopoly over Fraser Firs, which are considered the perfect Christmas trees. With over 5 million trees harvested annually, North Carolina's Christmas tree industry rakes in as much as $100 million per season. Across the nation, there are over 15,000 Christmas tree farms that employ roughly 100,000 Americans. Are you looking for a fun odd job?