Evergreen trees and plants held a special significance among people during the winter season, even before the introduction of Christianity. Earlier people used evergreen boughs suspended over their windows and doors, which have been replaced by the use of spruce, fir and pine trees during the present-day festive season. Most of the people followed the idea that these evergreen plants would help them keep illness, ghosts, evil spirits and witches away.
The reason for the occurrence of winter solstice, observed on the 21st or 22nd of December was believed to be the recovery of the sun god from its sickness that led to the arrival of winters. Evergreen boughs were seen as a remembrance of the fact that the green plants would grow again with the strengthening of the sun god, marking the return of summer.
Ancient Romans and Egyptians
Early Romans honored the agriculture god, Saturn by celebrating solstice with the Saturnalia feast as it meant that fruits will now start growing in orchards and farms and they would become green again. They used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the occasion. Ancient Egyptians adored Ra, a god with a hawk head and sun worn as a shining disk in the crown. Ra started recovering from illness at the solstice and the people of Egypt used green palm rushes to fill their homes as a symbol of victory of life over death.
In the 16th century, most of the Christian devotees started decorating their homes with Christmas trees, while others used wood-made pyramids, decorated with candles and evergreens. According to a popular belief, Martin Luther, a Protestant farmer of the 16th century is known to add lighted candles for the first time to a Christmas tree. Thus, with this mark on the history, Germany has been known for starting the tradition of using trees for Christmas celebrations.
Spread to America
In America, the first display of a Christmas tree was observed during the 1830s by Germans settled in Pennsylvania, among whom trees had been popular as community trees since 1747. However, Americans rejected their use by as late as 1840s, referring them as pagan symbols. Massachusetts’ general court passed a law in 1659 stating any observance other than a service at the church on December 25, a penal offense, which sustained until the 19th century, removed by the influx of Irish and German immigrants.
Queen Victoria was sketched with her German Prince with their children around a Christmas tree in 1846. This led to the rise of the Christmas tree tradition among Americans, which led to the arrival of Christmas ornaments from Germany. Europeans were known to use small trees of approximately 4-feet height, while Americans preferred those of floor-to-ceiling length.
During the early part of the 20th century, Americans started using homemade ornaments to decorate trees. Later, the advent of Christmas lights led to the appearance of glowing trees during the occasion. Thus, Christmas trees started appearing on town squares and in-home trees became popular as a tradition among Americans.
This is how Christmas tree tradition evolved among Americans from the historical use of trees and evergreen boughs among people.