"O, Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, your leaves are so unchanging" -- based off of a traditional folk song, this Christmas carol, German in origin, hints at how the Christmas tree came to be the centerpiece -- indeed, the most important -- in Christmas decorations.
Christmas trees have moved beyond the confines of the home: often, one will spy these trees, decked with ornaments, at the grocery store, at a restaurant, at your local cafe, at the office, at the park. It has become common practice to put it up everywhere to mark the start of the Christmas season.
But it's a practice that long predates Christianity or the birth of Christ. Pagans, during the winter seasons, often decorated their doors and windows with boughs that have "leaves that are so unchanging" -- evergreen branches, in other words, which remain verdant even in the winter. As furnishings that enlivened the home, these boughs stood as a symbol of the eventual return of spring, and with it the sun, blooming flowers, harvests, and abundance. Furthermore, it was believed that these branches protected the home from evil spirits.
Germany, in particular, is often cited as the origin of the Christmas tree of today. As Christianity took root in Germany, this pagan practice was adopted into the Christian tradition. In 16th century Germany, Christians began to use evergreen trees as part of their Christmas festivities. They decorated the trees with apples as an homage to the Garden of Eden. Other decorations soon found themselves upon the boughs of these prototypes. Candles were another popular ornament back then; to date, we use a variety of colorful Christmas lights, a safer alternative.
A sketch of the trendsetting Queen Victoria of England, pictured enjoying Christmas with the royal family around an early version of the Christmas tree. Published on a newspaper, the sketch popularized the Christmas tree in America and Europe in 1846. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As Germans emigrated to other parts of the world, so did the Christmas tree, which changed in style over the decades. Finally, in 1846, the Christmas tree found its way into the home of England’s Queen Victoria. She was married to a German prince. A sketch of the queen, her prince, and their children enjoying Christmas around a tree decked with sweets, candles, ornaments, and an angel was published in the Illustrated London News. It was then that the Christmas tree became popular. It became an instant hit among the populace, who revered Queen Victoria as an icon of fashionable taste and style.
Soon enough, the Christmas tree turned into a fixture, a staple, an icon of Christmas in Europe and America. By 1870, German artisans began exporting glass ornaments for the Christmas tree; on 1882, one Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, came up with electrically-powered Christmas lights to replace the tradition of putting candles upon the tree.
To date, Christmas trees take on various forms, from the standard evergreen to sculptural representations that tread the conceptual in nature and design. Almost every home erects a tree during the Yuletide season, and gifts -- often the best part of Christmas, especially among tykes in the family -- are placed beneath its evergreen boughs.