When you think of Christmas, there are a lot of things that come to mind. Family. Falling snow. Steaming mugs of . But there's likely one specific object that's in each and every one of those scenarios: a Christmas tree. Getting into the holiday spirit just isn't the same if an evergreen isn't standing tall in the living room, dressed in homemade ornaments, bright lights, and adorned with a magical tree topper.
But when exactly did people start chopping down trees and putting them in their homes? Some may think Christianity gets all the credit, but the tradition actually dates all the way back to the times of the ancient Egyptians.
The Start of the Christmas Tree
Whenever a winter solstice came around, the ancient Egyptians would with evergreen trees and wreaths as a form of celebration. The prosperous plant represented everlasting life, peace, and opulence, which was important because winter was a time when their sun god, Ra, was ill and weak, reports . After the solstice, Ra would slowly start glowing brighter and stronger, and an evergreen's immortality symbolized the triumph of life over death.
The Egyptians weren't the only ones bringing the plant indoors, though. In Scandinavia, the Vikings believed evergreens were , their god of light and peace. And the Druids, an ancient Celtic priesthood said to walk the line between the gods and mankind, started bringing evergreens into the home around the 8th century, reports . Before then, the Druids as their idol. But English Benedictine monk St. Boniface, a man who devoted his life to converting pagans, offered the Druids a triangular shaped balsam fir tree as a symbol of the Trinity, and it went on to replace their beloved oaks. They then used evergreens to adorn their temples as a celebration of life without death, hanging mistletoe sprigs over their doorways and windows to ward off evil spirits of diseases.
Christmas Trees and Christianity
Though 16th century German theologian and priest Martin Luther is famed for , he's also credited with bringing the Christmas tree to Germany and introducing it to Christianity in the way that it's known today.
According to , German Christians built pyramids of wood and adorned them with evergreens and candles outside to celebrate Jesus' birth. Luther, in awe of the magical, sparkling trees shining bright outside, decided to recapture the beautiful scene for his family by bringing the tree inside and covering it with wire and candles.
Most 18th and 19th-century Americans though, and to some it was even taken to be a representation of paganism. According to Plymouth Colony governor called it a "pagan mockery," and the general court of Massachusetts even implemented a law in 1659 that banned any observance of December 25 that wasn't a church service — including decorations.
The Rise in Popularity
It wasn't until the late 19th century that decorated evergreens became the ultimate Christmas symbol we all know and love today. In 1846, the second longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, was and husband, Prince Albert, alongside a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. Because Queen Victoria was so popular (kind of like another royal family we know), the decision instantly became an iconic one and went mainstream worldwide.
Ornaments flooded to the U.S., and trees started popping up in households across the States, Britain, and Germany. By the early 20th century, Americans had large floor-to-ceiling trees and decorated them with homemade items like popcorn strings, marzipan cookies, nuts, apples, and candles, reports the .
The introduction of electricity brought about string lights instead of candles, as Thomas Edison also created the first strand of electric lights in 1880, which he strung outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory, according to the . Two years later, his friend and partner, Edward H. Johnson, hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue lights that he wrapped around a Christmas tree. , General Electric offered pre-assembled kits for everyday customers to buy.
In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge of lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights. And less than a decade later, in 1931, the very first was lit — an occasion that soon became a trademark sign of the holidays. Today, many famous displays stand tall around the world, including the in Vatican City, the in Brazil, and the in Italy.
So as you go to hang your ornaments this year, think about how far the Christmas tree has come. And remember, it represents a time of peace and prosperity — something we could all use a little more of as we cozy into the holiday spirit.