Though evergreen trees are now ubiquitously associated with the Christmas holiday, throughout history they have been used as winter symbols in a variety of cultural and religious traditions.
Before Christianity was popularized, evergreens were valued for their supposed magical qualities. Their durability was thought to give them special powers, such as the ability to fight off illness and evil spirits. In pagan tradition, evergreen boughs and shrubs would be displayed during the winter solstice to symbolize the revitalization of the sun god. After the solstice was over, the sun god would become more powerful and the days would become longer and longer, eventually leading to another spring and a new growing season. To pagans, evergreens were proof of the continuation of life and the promise of summer.
Ancient Egyptians, Vikings, and early Romans also used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes around solstice time. The boughs represented everlasting life and signaled the oncoming of another growing season. Evergreen plants proved that even in winter—a time of scarcity and hardship—life could flourish.
Evergreens were not incorporated into Christian tradition until the 16th century. Germany is credited with starting the trend. Devout Christians in Germany cut down evergreens and decorated them in their homes to make “Christmas pyramids.” Martin Luther supposedly began putting lighted candles on Christmas Trees to emulate the brilliance of the night sky. This display evidently stuck, and soon thereafter lighted candles became a popular Christmas tree decoration throughout Germany.
America was not quick to adopt this German tradition. German settler communities often erected community Christmas trees in town squares, but individual Christmas trees were an oddity well into the 19th century. Many American Christians considered the Christmas tree a pagan symbol, meant to represent the earth rather than the heavens. The melding of pagan and Christian traditions was generally discouraged and considered blasphemous. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christmas was a stern religious holiday observed primarily in churches. But, in the 1800s, an influx of German and Irish immigrants popularized decorations, gift-giving, and other diverse traditions.
By the late 19th century, Christmas decorations were being imported to America from Europe, and Christmas trees were considered to be a chic sign of stature and affluence. The bigger the tree, the better. Wealthy American families often had trees that extended all the way from floor to ceiling.
In the early 20th century, the Christmas tree was a fairly common holiday fixture. Families decorated their trees with homemade ornaments, string, cookies, sweets, and popcorn balls. The advent of electricity popularized Christmas lights (although they were much more dangerous back then) and companies gradually began selling novelty ornaments that families could buy.
Now, Christmas trees are bought and displayed in millions of home across the United States by people from a variety of cultures and creeds. Christmas trees are used as both a religious and secular symbol meant to commemorate the holiday season. Every family typically creates their own holiday traditions, including how and when to decorate the Christmas trees. Christmas tree farming is now a multi-million dollar business, and Christmas ornaments can be bought to commemorate almost any occasion.