The first record of a decorated Christmas tree was found in Riga, Latvia in 1510 where men of the local guild of merchants decorated an evergreen tree in the town square with artificial roses and then set fire to it. The next time the historical record mentions the intentional selection of trees which were subsequently brought into homes was in 1530 in Alsace, Germany (which is now French territory). Trees were sold in the town’s marketplace and set up in resident’s homes, undecorated, at that time the trees were only allowed to be “8 shoes lengths”, approximately 4 feet tall.
By the 17th century it was a commonplace practice in Germany to bring live trees into homes and decorate them with apples. This tradition was apparently leftover from the 14th and 15th centuries when boughs hung with apples were the only set decoration during so-called “miracle plays”. These plays were put on in churches on Christmas eve (which was called Adam and Eve’s day) in an effort to teach biblical lessons and stories to a largely illiterate population.
In the 1700s inhabitants in parts of Austria and Germany were bringing tops of evergreen trees into their homes and suspending them from the ceilings. These trees were decorated with red ribbons, apples and gilded nuts. Edible ornaments were so popular at this time, trees were often called sugartrees. This time also marked the beginning of lighting Christmas trees, in France lighted candles adorned the trees during the 18th century.
German settlers introduced indoor, decorated Christmas trees to the United States in the 1800s. And the tradition quickly changed from small tabletop trees to full, lush, floor to ceiling sized live trees. The first recorded sales of Christmas trees in the U.S. were in 1851 when they were harvested at random from forests. Later in the century the first glass ornaments were brought to the country, again from Germany. These first ornaments were mostly glass balls, but soon strings of balls and beads, toys and figures became common. In 1883 Sears and Roebuck introduced the first artificial Christmas tree, they sold a 33-limb model for $0.50 and 55-limb model for $1.00.
By the 1900s the forests were already thinned due to over harvesting without replanting. Conservationists of the time became alarmed and began a campaign encouraging citizens to substitute evergreen trees with deciduous ones wrapped in cotton, which was supposed to approximate a snow-covered evergreen tree. The first farm specializing in the growth and harvest of Christmas trees began in 1901 in New Jersey when W.V. McGalliard planted 25,000 Norway spruces on his farmland. At this time Theodore Roosevelt was advocating to stop the use of live trees because of the decimation of forests. However, his sons disagreed and collaborated with famous conservationist and environmental activist, Gifford Pinchot, to illustrate that when done properly Christmas tree farming could be environmentally responsible and the practice would not negatively affect forests. In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt started a Christmas tree farm on his property in Hyde Park, NY.
In 1966 the National Christmas Tree Association started what has become a time-honored tradition of having the Grand Champion grower present a specimen to the First Lady of the United States for the Blue Room of the White House. And today, approximately 30 million live trees are sold each year at Christmas in the United States, almost all of them come from farms and plantations.
For more information about Christmas trees, traditions, environmental impacts and where to find trees near you, visit: http://www.realchristmastrees.org/dnn/Home.aspx.