The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

A History of the Christmas Tree

For the ears, you can listen to an audio recording of this presentation. [high fidelity audio playable under all personal computer operating systems via VLC media player, Microsoft Windows Media Player with the codecs for FLAC et al, OS X QuickTime with the XiphQT plugin, etc., on many Android-based mobile devices, and on iOS-based mobile devices via apps such as FLAC Player or Golden Ear]

A History of the Christmas Tree

presentation at Adult Forum by
Terry Yuschok
Congregation member
December 18, 2016

The History of the Christmas Tree

Theresa A. Yuschok

O, Tannebaum

Lyrics by Ernst Aushutz, 1824

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
   How lovely are your branches!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
   How lovely are your branches!
In beauty green will always grow
Through summer sun and winter snow.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
   You are the tree most loved!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
   You are the tree most loved!
How often you give us delight
In brightly shining Christmas light!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
You are the tree most loved!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
   Your beauty green will teach me
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
   Your beauty green will teach me
That hope and love will ever be
The way to joy and peace for me.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me.

VIRIDITAS : Divine Force of Nature, The Greening Power of God

Hildegard of Bingen 1098-1179

photo of path through green forest


In the coldest and darkest time of the year,
we yearn for a reminder of the spring.

In Ancient Egypt, the evergreen date palm was a sacred tree, and a palm branch was the symbol of the god Heh, the personification of Eternity.


Egyptian artwork depicting palm trees



Roman Festival of Saturnalia December 17 - 25

Saturn, God of Agriculture
Time of lawlessness and revelry
   Sexual indulgence
   Singing naked in the streets
   Eat human-shaped biscuits
   Bring trees and greenery inside.
4th Century Catholic Church adopted Saturnalia for Christmas time.


depiction of dancing during festival



St. Boniface 722 AD

Patron Saint of Germany, Brewers and Tailors

English Benedictine monk travelled to Germany.

He cut down the Thunder-Oak of Thor which was worshipped with child and animal sacrifices. A Fir appeared at the root.

"The Fir Tree shall be the sign of your new worship."

Triangle shape of fir represents Trinity.


image in stained glass window of St. Boniface chopping at a tree



Northern Europe 1000's

  • Upside down Christmas tree
  • Cherry or hawthorn wood
  • Available today.


photo of lighted upside-down tree



Medieval Mystery Plays

Paradise Trees designed from a pyramid of boxes with live branches.

December 24th was "Adam and Eve Day"

Indoor trees were decorated with apples and wafers - symbols of sin and redemption.


image of Adam and Eve with the tree of life



First New Year's Tree

Tallin, Estonia 1441 vs Riga, Latvia 1510

Townsquare tree

Dancing and singing

Set the tree on fire!

"Yule log"


image of old map of Riga with first Christmas tree



Martin Luther overcome with the ineffable beauty of the stars through a tree, brought a tree inside to share with his family. He lit candles like the stars.
image of tens of candles on branches of small Christmas tree

Tree Decorations
Germany in 1600s


  • Edibles - gingerbread, apples, wafers
  • Gold foil
  • Thin silver strips
  • Glass blowing


Tree toppers

  • Baby Jesus
  • Angel
  • Star of Bethlehem



The Christmas Spider

  • Legend of a poor family who couldn't afford to decorate a tree. A spider wove cobwebs and in the morning the strands were silver and gold.
  • "Pavuchky" tiny spider
  • A spider on your tree is good luck!


image of a tree ornament in the shape of a spider web



1841 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

  • "The Queen and the Christmas Tree in Windsor Castle" 1841
  • This drawing in London Times and Philadelphia Godey's Lady's Book increased the number of Christmas trees in homes.


image of royal family around a decorated tree



Candles to Electric Lights

  • 1885 Chicago hospital burned due to candles on a tree.
  • 1895 Ralph Morris invented the first electric Christmas lights.
  • (Edward Johnson , Edison's assistant, came up with idea of electric Christmas lights 1882, mass produced 1890)
  • 1908 Insurance companies lobbied to ban candles on trees

City Christmas Trees

1913 Chicago in Grant Park

1933 NYC Rockefeller Center
      2004 500# Swarovski Crystal Star
      2007 Solar panels and LED lights

1947 London Trafalger Square, gift from Norway
      with gratitude for WWII

National Christmas Tree Lighting

1923 Pres. Calvin Coolidge The National Christmas Tree

1954 Hargrove installs bulbs

1963 LBJ postponed until Dec 22
- 30 days mourning for JFK.

1978 Colorado Blue Spruce

1983 Amy Bentham, 7yo, "Make a wish"

2015 Nat'l Park Service 100yrs


photo of President's family at tree-lighting ceremony



Types of Christmas Trees

photos of Douglas, Noble, and Fraser fir trees, blue and winter spruce trees, white pine, Arizona cypress, and eastern red cedar trees

Types of Christmas Trees - by needles

photos of needles of three types of fir, Scotch pine, and blue spruce trees

Top Choices:

image of popular species of Christmas trees

Christmas Tree Sales in USA

  • 98% of Christmas Trees are grown on farms in USA.
  • 1851 First Christmas tree retail lot in USA in NYC
  • 1901 Christmas Tree Farm, Trenton, NJ
  • Oregon, NC, Michigan, PA, WI, WA, NY, VA are top producers.
  • 24.5 Million farm grown trees were purchased in USA 2012 ($1 Billion)
  • Poem Christmas Trees, Robert Frost was offered $30 for 1000 trees.

Artificial Trees

  • 1800's green goosefeathers with wire branches
  • 1930 USA Addis Brush company, same machinery as toilet brushes
  • 1957 aluminum trees
  • Today, mostly PVC plastic, 80% made in China
  • 10.9 million artificial trees purchased in USA in 2012

Famous Christmas Trees
in books and movies

What are your favorites?

The Little Fir Tree

by Hans Christian Anderson

image of book cover


"My days are all over and past," said the poor tree, "Why didn't I enjoy them while I could?"



A Christmas Tree

by Charles Dickens

"This, in commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion. This in remembrance of me."


image of book cover



A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - 1943

by Betty Smith, written in Chapel Hill, NC

"There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached ..." (page 202)

"The room smelled cold and clean and aromatic. Every day, during the week the tree stood there, Francie put on her sweater and zitful cap and went in and sat under the tree. She sat there and enjoyed the smell and the dark greenness of it.

Oh, the mystery of a great tree, a prisoner in a tin wash bucket in a tenement front room!" (pages 208-209)

A Charlie Brown Christmas

cartoon panel

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

image of book cover


image of book illustration



Merry ...

by Shel Silverstein

No one's hangin' stockin's up,
No one's bskin' pie,
No one's lookin' up to see
A new star in the sky,
No one's talkin' brotherhood,
No one's givin' gifts,
And no one loves a Christmas tree
On March the twenty-fifth.


image of barren tree on stand



O, Tannebaum!
What does the beauty green teach us?

photo of rows of young trees on a Christmas tree farm

Be Evergreen!

I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.  Charles Dickens