Plants and trees that remain green all year have always held special meaning to people. Some believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition we know today back in the 16th century. The story goes it was Martin Luther who first lit a Christmas tree with candles. It is said he was walking home one night and was taken aback by the beauty of the stars shining through the evergreens. He went home and wired candles to the boughs of their tree so his family might experience that same sense of awe.
The first recorded Christmas tree in an American home was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Germans had public Christmas trees as early as 1747, but until the 1840s such things were still considered a pagan symbol by most Americans. Everything began to change in 1846 when Queen Victoria and her husband, the German Prince Albert, were sketched for the Illustrated London News standing with their children around their decorated Christmas tree. The popular royals were the trend setters of their time, not only in Britain but with fashion-conscious East Coast American society.
The practice soon spread throughout America and by the end of the 19th century German tree ornaments were regularly arriving on our shores. It must be noted, like everything else, Americans like their Christmas trees big. While Germans commonly used trees of only about four feet in height, Americans have always liked their trees to reach from floor to ceiling.
In the early 20th century most Americans decorated their trees with home-made ornaments while German-Americans continued to use their traditional decorations of apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Brightly-dyed popcorn was strung with berries and nuts. With the advent of electricity Christmas trees appeared in town squares. An American tradition was born.
In our home we have three trees. For many years we decorated just the one. Then, four years ago when we moved to a larger home we started decorating two trees, a traditional real tree in the living room and a small artificial table-top tree in the master bedroom. Last year we discovered the previous owner left a large artificial tree in a box under the basement stairs. It was a pre-lit leafless tree flocked in white. We set that up in the glass 3-season sunroom and decorated it with red and silver ornaments; simple and elegant when viewed against the snow-covered backyard. Sometimes I wonder why we go to all the work of decorating one tree, let alone three, only to have to take it all down again a month later. Then I sit and gaze up at the angel perched on top, the lights twinkling like the stars Martin Luther admired so many years ago, like the star that led the three wise men to the stable where the baby Jesus lay. Without a tree to remind me would this season of our Lord’s birth pass with a little less joy, a little less notice? I can’t say, but I do know I will continue to decorate a Christmas every year until I can no longer hold myself up to do so, even if it’s only one small tree.
A joyous Christmas season to you and yours!