Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations.
Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched standing with their children around a Christmas tree. What was done at court immediately became fashionable…the Christmas tree had arrived. By the 1890s Christmas ornaments ordered by German immigrants were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise.
The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree dates back to the Depression Era days. The first tree at Rockefeller Center was placed in 1931. It was a small unadorned tree placed by construction workers at the center of the construction site. Two years later, another tree was placed there, this time with lights. These days, the giant Rockefeller Center tree is laden with over 25,000 Christmas lights.
Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since about 1850. 98 percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farms. Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states including Hawaii and Alaska. The best selling trees are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir, and White Pine.
The tallest living Christmas tree is believed to be the 122-foot, 91-year-old Douglas fir in the town of Woodinville, Washington. Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has given a Christmas tree to the President and first family.