History of Christmas Trees for Kids

Bedtime History

Every year in winter, many families around the world decorate their homes for the holidays.  Red, white, green and many other coloured lights start to appear on the fronts of houses and in yards.  They twinkle and add a feeling of joy and light to a season that can be very dark in many parts of the world, including much of North America.  

As days get shorter and nights are longer, Christmas lights provide a beacon of happiness to people who enjoy them.  And many homes have the soft glow of lights on Christmas trees as a reminder of the meaning of the season, peace and love.

So the other day I was thinking, Christmas Trees are fun and everything, but where do they come from? Have you ever wondered where the tradition of Christmas trees comes from?

Well, long ago, the tradition began with the hanging of green tree boughs and branches over doors and windows.  Trees that remain green throughout winter had a special meaning for people who lived in cold, dark places.  Because these trees were able to stay alive despite the cold and dark, ancient people believed that they had special power to keep away illness and evil spirits. 

In the Northern hemisphere, or northern half of the world, the shortest day of the year is on December 21 or 22 each year.  This is called the winter solstice.  This became a time of year that people especially wanted to hang evergreen boughs in their homes, to help them get through the cold dark time and remind them that spring would come again soon and things would eventually turn green again.

In early Roman times, Roman people had a festival on the night of the winter solstice called Saturnalia.  They decorated their homes and temples with evergreen branches.  Later, when Roman people moved to Northern Europe, they brought this tradition with them.  While Romans would use different types of branches when they lived in Rome, once they had moved north, they used trees from those areas.  Some of the types of trees that keep their green branches throughout winter in cold places include pine, spruce and fir trees. 

The first people who brought an entire tree into their home as part of the tradition are thought to be the German people. By the 16th century, Christianity had spread throughout much of Europe. Christianity is the belief in Jesus Christ, that he was God’s son. Christians. There is a story about a Christian teacher named Martin Luther that when he was walking home, he saw many beautiful stars twinkling in the sky.  He wanted to recreate the beauty of the night sky in his home and did so by bringing in a tree and wiring lighted candles to its branches.

Another theory for how the first Christmas tree came to be set up inside a home is from a combination of two customs that had existed in Germany prior to the 16th century.  Before this time, some people set up a “paradise tree” in their homes, which were fir trees decorated with apples.  The paradise tree was mean to represent the tree of knowledge from the Garden of Eden, in the Bible story. Some people think that eventually the apples were replaced by candles to represent Jesus as the Light of the World.

Regardless of the exact origin, the practice of putting a tree in one’s home during the winter and decorating it spread throughout Germany.  When German people moved to America, they brought this tradition with them.  Americans from other countries thought the tradition was strange and some did not believe that it was a good thing to do.  Some thought that Christmas trees were pagan symbols.  Paganism is a word that describes old celtic beliefs that existed in Europe before Christianity was widespread there. Some even tried to stop others from being allowed to put Christmas trees up anymore.

In 1846 however, that started to change.  The queen of England at the time was Queen Victoria and she was married to a German prince named Prince Albert.  Because her husband was German, Queen Victoria and her family put up a Christmas tree in their home in the winter.  When other people saw a sketch of the royal family standing next to a Christmas tree, the idea of Christmas trees became immediately popular with the people of England.  Queen Victoria was a very well-liked queen and people wanted to imitate her. Imitate means to follow someone’s trend or copy their idea. 

The popularity of Queen Victoria was also present in America and when Americans saw this sketch in the newspapers, they also started wanting to have Christmas trees in their homes.  They thought it was a fashionable idea.  Fashionable means that people generally believed it was a cool idea and started to do the same.  The Christmas trees in European homes were small, about the height of a child.  However in America, it started to become common for people to want to have very large Christmas trees that reached all the way to the ceiling.

By the late 1900s, Christmas trees were growing in popularity throughout America.  People in America and Europe decorated their trees mainly with fruit and nuts and homemade ornaments. Some added cookies or strings of popcorn, berries and nuts.  Trees were all covered in candles that were wired to their branches and would be lit up at night.  It was very dangerous to have so many small open fires inside of houses and many houses had fire accidents as a result.  

When electricity in homes became common, people started to decorate their trees with Christmas lights instead of candles.  This made it so that trees could stay glowing for much longer and could have lights of many different colours on their branches.  Electric lights also made it so that trees in other places, outside of homes, could be lit up throughout the season.  Businesses and towns started decorating trees throughout cities and businesses throughout the Christmas season.

Throughout the world, people now decorate trees at Christmas.  While the practice is wide-spread, the way that people decorate their trees varies in different countries.  In Canada and the United States, people copy many of the trends that started to become popular after Queen Victoria had her family Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.  People decorate trees with lights and ornaments and hang garlands, red white and green decorations and ginger bread in their homes. 

In Mexico, most homes set up a Nativity scene at Christmas.  This is a set of ornaments that represent the Holy Family on the night that baby Jesus was born in a manger. Mexican families cannot all afford pine trees, as they do not grown in Mexico. So wealthy families often buy imported ones from the United States and other families often set up small artificial, or fake Christmas trees or small shrubs that are native to the country.

In Brazil, families decorate their Christmas trees with small pieces of cotton to look like falling snow. In Norway, people usually go into the woods to find their Christmas tree and cut it down themselves.  Norwegian parents decorate their tree on Christmas eve while kids wait in the other room.  When the tree is ready the come out and celebrate by singing carols as a family.  In South Africa and other hot countries in the southern hemisphere, Christmas is a summer holiday.  Some places do not set up Christmas trees, but instead, people decorate their windows with cotton and tinsel to look like snow and ice. 

Does your family set up a tree at Christmas and decorate it with lights and ornaments? Or is there another holiday that your family celebrates in winter or another way that your family celebrates Christmas?  Every family has their own traditions and it is interesting to think about the history of where your family’s traditions come from. 

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About Bedtime History

Bedtime History is a series of educational, relaxing stories for kids and families. Learn about inspirational characters such as Jackie Robinson, Sacajawea, Neil Armstrong, and Maya Angelou. Other topics include space exploration, current events, and great feats of engineering such as The Transcontinental Railroad.