Queen’s decorating inspired American Christmas trees


It’s easy to spot cars carrying evergreens these days. They’re going home by the millions to become Christmas trees. But decorating trees for Christmas is a relatively new custom in many places, including the U.S.

North American colonies established by religious dissenters from England scorned anything hinting at pagan practices. That’s especially true in New England – Massachusetts outlawed any holiday celebration of Christmas outside of church services in 1659. No evergreens, carols or festive songs were allowed in many areas.

Germany, however, had different traditions. There, Paradise Trees — firs decorated with apples that were popular in medieval mystery plays — had morphed into Christmas trees. By the 1740s, German settlers and Hessian soldiers in English garrisons in colonial New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania introduced decorated evergreens to celebrate Christmas, although many of their neighbors felt the practice was pagan. These were community trees — living, outdoor evergreens decked with rosettes of colored paper, nuts, apples and cookies.

Inside trees didn’t have much of a U.S. presence until 1846 when illustrations of Queen Victoria’s family gathered around an elaborately decorated table-top tree appeared in sketches in the London Illustrated News. The queen had a tree in every room, and indoor Christmas trees quickly became popular in upper class American homes. By 1850, Christmas trees were being sold commercially in several states.

Martin Luther is said to have placed candles on tree boughs in memory of the beauty of the Christmas sky, and whether he actually started the tradition or not, illuminating Christmas trees with candles was very popular. As Christmas trees gained popularity, newspapers reported a new holiday tradition — house fires started by Christmas tree candles.

That’s why it was sensational when Edison laboratory employees hand-wired red, white and blue electric bulbs and strung them on a Christmas tree in 1882. Soon, elite families were hiring electricians to create strings of Christmas tree lights.

Today, more than 25 million freshly cut trees are sold each year, and Christmas trees farms plant 77 million seedlings each year to replace them. Firs and pines are the most desired, and Wisconsin produces a large portion of the harvest.

Artificial trees are also popular, and they have been around longer than many may imagine. The first of them appeared in Germany in the 1800s when limits were placed on the number of evergreens that could be cut. Most of them used dyed goose feather segments wrapped around dowels to simulate branches with a built-in red candle holders placed at the end of each “branch.”

We favor Fraser fir Christmas trees around here. After the holiday, all the branches are removed and used as winter mulch on our lavender plants. The branches and trunk are chipped in the spring and used to mulch the perennial beds. We may not have space to grow our own Christmas trees, but for gardeners it’s easy to recycle the real ones after the holiday.


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