What Do Trees Really Have to Do with Christmas, Anyway?

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Let’s face it: This whole Christmas tree tradition is pretty strange. Each year we chop down pine and fir trees by the millions, bring them into our homes, hang tinsel and glass balls and then surround them with gifts.

Worse yet, even the most devout holiday enthusiasts have no idea why they even bother with trees besides the fact that everyone else is doing it, which is why we hit the history books to find out where this whole Christmas-tree thingy came from in the first place…

Pines and Fir: There’s a lot of debate regarding who introduced pine and fir evergreens to the Christmas holiday. Some believe early pagans started the tradition by decorating their homes with fir branches to celebrate the winter solstice. Others claim the ancient Romans introduced the world to Christmas trees by placing evergreens, which are recognized as a symbol of life because of their ability to live through the winter, inside their temples during their winter celebration of Saturnalia.

Ornaments: While those pagan and Roman institutions no doubt influenced the tree-centric holiday’s early days, it wasn’t until the 12th century in Eastern Europe that the Christmas tree actually became the Christmas tree—albeit a little differently. In that part of the world, trees were hung upside down from the ceiling as an ode to the holy trinity. And it was during this time that the ornaments, in the form of apples, were introduced in reference to the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit. Later on, apples would give way to red glass balls when the idea of placing food on a tree wore out.

Lights: As ornaments became more and more commonplace, people started looking for unique ways to decorate their trees. And while 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther was walking home late one evening, the twinkle of stars shining amidst the evergreens inspired him to recreate the scene within his home by wiring candles to his Christmas tree’s branches. About 300 years later, during the Christmas of 1882, Thomas Edison’s associate, Edward H. Johnson, invented the first ever set of electric tree lights using 80 hand-wired red, white and blue walnut-sized bulbs.

Tradition: During the Christmas of 1848, England’s Queen Victoria asked her German husband, Prince Albert, to decorate a tree as he had in his homeland. Once completed, the tree, now decorated in sweets, ornaments and topped with an angel, was featured in the high-fashion weekly Illustrated London News. Now popularized, Christmas trees as we know and love them began to spread from England to other parts of the Christian world. By 1900, one in five American families had their own Christmas tree during the holidays.