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Christmas Trees, From 18th Century Germany to Modern America

Christmas Tree by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

Although you may be familiar with the modern Christmas trees that adorn our public spaces and homes here in America, did you know that it originates from the German tradition of devout Christians decorating trees and bringing them into their homes as early as the 16th century?

Decorated Christmas Tree by Jorge Dominguez on Unsplash
Decorated Christmas Tree

It is believed that the first person to put candles on a Christmas tree was Martin Luther. Has was a Protestant reformer from the 16th century. Legend has it that he was composing a sermon while walking home on a winter evening. He saw the stars shining through evergreen trees and was taken aback by their beauty. In an effort to share this beauty with his family, he brought a tree inside his home and attached candles on the branches. Until the advent of electricity in the 20th century, this is how Christmas trees were lit.

Christmas Tree Lit with Candles by Sebastian on Unsplash
Christmas Tree Lit with Candles

America dates the arrival of the Christmas tree to German settlements in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The first record of a Christmas tree on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania. American settlers typically used Douglas Firs and Virginia Pines to decorate their living rooms.

Germany’s tree population began to suffer mass destruction by the 1800’s. It was because of this destruction that the introduction of the first artificial Christmas tree took place in Germany in the 1880’s. The first artificial Christmas tree was made of goose feathers. The trees were lovely, but not very rigid. The American company, the Addis Brush Company changed this in the early 1900’s. Using the same manufacturing processes that they used to make their toilet bowl brushes, they created a new type of artificial Christmas tree. The tree made by Addis Brush could hold more weight (and subsequently more ornaments), which gave it a big advantage over the original goose feather version.

By the 1960’s silver aluminum pine trees were all the rage and made the artificial Christmas tree a popular decorating staple in homes around the country.

18th Century America

It was the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans who introduced Christmas celebrations to colonial America, but they were quite different than today’s festivities. The “Twelve days of Christmas” began on December 25th and lasted until the “Twelfth Day,” January 6, also known as Three Kings Day. In Colonial times, these twelve days were marked with festival, parties, and balls.

The Southern Colonies were the original colonies to have these Christmas celebrations. The holiday was based on religious celebrations, and was not focused on children. Holly, laurel, and garland were commonly used , and these decorations are still used today. Along with elaborate church services, the colonists had organized hunts, and attended parties and feasts.

Another 18th century festive favorite whose flowers were first cultivated as ornamental plants is the amaryllis. Amaryllis remain symbols of the winter holiday season, with their beautiful blooms adorning everything from holiday cards to the dining room table. The Red Lion amaryllis (Hippeastrum) is a time-honored favorite for holiday decorating. It has stunning red petals with delicate white flushes at the tips and red stamens. They’re popular as gifts during the holiday season because they’re viewed as a sign of festive cheer.

The Poinsettia is a Christmas flower that was first introduced to America in 1828. This plant is native to Mexico, and was brought into the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Ambassador to Mexico. He was a physician and a botanist. The plant is known as a Poinsettia, named in Poinsett’s honor, in the United States; however In Mexico, it is called “La Flor de la Nochebuena” (Flower of the Holy Night, or Christmas Eve).

Early 20th Century America

By the end of the 19th century, the essential elements of a modern Christmas celebration were established here in America. By 1900, one in five Americans was estimated to have a Christmas tree. People were still using real candles to light up their trees in 1910 and they were truly creative in their decorating endeavors, which has evolved with technology. By 1914, tree lights were being mass produced. There are now approximately 150 million sets of lights sold in the U.S. each year.

One decorating phenomenon from the late 19th and early 20th century is the Christmas pickle ornament. There’s some debate about its origins, however. Some believe it dates back to when German parents would buy the ornament and hide it somewhere in the tree, letting the children hunt for it. The one who found it received an extra gift for being extra-observant. A more recent story depicts a Bavarian who came to fight the Civil War and was captured by Confederate soldiers. Starving and near death, the soldier convinced a jailer to bring him a pickle to eat. Bolstered by eating the pickle, the soldier survived and began his own tradition of hiding a glass pickle ornament in the family Christmas tree. The finder would enjoy a year of good luck.

Pickle Ornaments for Sale by Steven Miller on Flickr
Pickle Ornaments for Sale

Another tradition that gained popularity in the early 20th century is the advent calendar. Early versions started in Germany in 1903 by publisher Gerhard Land. Children could count down to Christmas by opening one “door” or “window” a day to reveal a Bible passage, poem, or small gift. Today the calendars have evolved into secular calendars that include a daily gift, such as chocolate or an action figure.

The nutcracker is a beloved Christmas decoration that’s been around for ages, and nutcrackers are collected by people all over the world. They were popularized by the famous ballet, The Nutcracker, by Russian composer Tchaikovsky. The ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892. And, made it’s way to the United States in 1944, when it was performed by the San Francisco Ballet.

Rat King Entrance and Battle Scene – Excerpt from the Nutcracker. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Late 20th Century America

Christmas in the 20th century reflected the changes from the 19th century. Holiday traditions remained the same, for the most part. People put up Christmas trees and decorations, they filled stockings with gifts, and held holiday parties. The big change was the commercialization of the holiday. By the mid-1900s, the post-war baby boom meant there were lots of families with young children, as well as new-found prosperity. Meaning, most were lucky enough to be able to afford Christmas celebrations. Women’s magazines pushed for the ideal Christmas season, full of fancy decor and elaborate recipes.

And in the 1960’s, the popularity of television brought with it a slew of Christmas specials and every toy imaginable was being advertised to children between the Christmas cartoons they’d watch. The Christmas shows we still watch today- Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman – contributed to more colorful and quirkier decorations than ever before.

Christmas Roof Decoration - Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer by Dick Thompson on Flickr
Christmas Roof Decoration – Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer

Over time, Christmas lights and decorations made their way from the tree to rooftops, doorways, and porch railings of homes and businesses. From the 1960’s and on it became increasingly popular to completely outline a house with lights. This gave birth to the pastime of families driving or walking around neighborhoods to see the homes illuminated. Some homes may not have had lights, but instead, incredibly elaborate displays on the lawn and even Christmas roof decorations, like Santa and his sleigh. The technology used in Christmas lighting displays became highly diverse, ranging from simple light strands, to full blown illuminated animatronics and statues.

By the late twentieth century, Christmas lighting and decorating had become a fierce competition, with towns and villages offering awards for the best decorated house. In other areas, it’s done as a co-operative effort, with residents winning as a team for their street or neighborhood. And by the beginning of the twenty-first century, holiday lights displays had become so creative and over-the-top that many homes became viral sensations because of their holiday creations.

House Elaborately Decorated with Christmas Lights by Juliana Malta on Unsplash
House Elaborately Decorated with Christmas Lights

While some decoration styles have the theme that “more is better,” another modern decorating theme is “less is more.” This style is characteristic of Scandinavian Christmas décor. This style embodies simplicity and coziness. Scandinavian colors are white, black, and grey. The Christmas decorations used in Scandinavia emphasize lighter woods and dark evergreen plants. Simple candles and light strings are common. A Danish word that is used is “hygge,” and it means comfortable and cozy.

Scandinavian Christmas Decor by Ирина Безмен from Pixabay
Heartwarming Scene that illustrates the “hygge” of Scandinavian Christmas Decor

Today

Today’s Christmas lights vary considerably, reflecting the diversity of modern lighting technology in general. As we’ve become more aware of our energy use, more people are opting to use light-emitting diodes (LED s), as they are more energy efficient. Generally, LED’s are as much as 3 times more energy efficient. They convert nearly all the electricity they consume into illumination, so they tend to be brighter. Gone are the days of dull, uninspiring colors.

LED’s now come in a variety of sizes and colors. There are mini LED Christmas lights and even programmable color changing LED Christmas lights! Mini lights are often used in Christmas light sculptures. These are typically large wire-frame metalwork pieces made for public displays, such as for a municipal government or a shopping center.

Light shown in Minnetrista, MN created from programmable color changing LED Christmas lights

Light sculptures can be flat or three-dimensional. 3-D sculptures often include reindeer or Santa and his sleigh and have a motor so that the parts (reindeer’s head, Santa’s hand) move, making them look life-like. Some sculptures have micro-controllers that sequence circuits of lights, so that the object appears to be in motion. With this technology, the lights can make you believe that snow is falling, trains are moving, and Santa is waving.

Programmable color changing LED Christmas lights are very popular as they’ve become easier to install, more affordable, and provide more features than ever before. Many even come with an app or a remote timer. Mini LED Christmas lights are beneficial because they are bright, long-lasting, and don’t use much energy.

These days lots of cities hold Christmas lights contests. And since 2013 there are even television shows, such as The Great Christmas Light Fight, devoted to these incredibly extravagant Christmas lights displays. Displays are judged on three categories: use of lights, overall design, and Christmas spirit. The winners receive a large cash prize and a holiday trophy!

Although Christmas decorations have changed dramatically throughout the years, what hasn’t changed is the feel-good nostalgia many experience during the holiday season.

Christmas Tree decorated in Scandanavian Color Schemes by Ann Schreck on Unsplash
Modern Christmas Tree