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Christmas Trees are an Old Tradition

Plant of the Week

Christmas Trees are an Old Tradition

Picture of a decorated Christmas Tree with packages under the tree.

No one knows exactly when or where the tradition of the Christmas tree began, but there are some interesting theories, according to Gerald Klingaman, horticulturist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

"One of the more colorful stories goes back to Martin Luther (1483-1546)," says Klingaman. "Luther was strolling through the countryside on Christmas Eve when he noticed the beauty of a snow-flaked evergreen tree as it glistened in the moonlit winter landscape.

"He attempted to recreate the winter scene for his family using a small evergreen tree and lighted candles to simulate the reflected moonlight."

Some historians trace the use of evergreen trees in the home to ancient Egyptians. They used green date palms as a symbol of life's triumph over death in their celebration of the shortest day of the year.

The Romans adorned their houses with evergreens to celebrate Saturnalia in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture.

Klingaman says the first recorded reference to a Christmas tree appears in German writing dated 1521. "The writer said, ‘At Christmas, fir trees are set up in the rooms at Strasbourg and hung with roses cut from paper of many colors, apples, wafers, spangles, gold and sugar.’"

As people began to move across Europe and later to new lands, they took the Christmas tree tradition with them.

The tradition apparently came to this country slightly before or during the Revolutionary War, brought by German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania and Ohio, or by Hessian troops paid to fight in the Revolution.

Use of the Yule tree spread slowly until just before the Civil War, when it began gaining popularity. In 1851, the custom had grown enough to prompt an ambitious farmer in the Catskill Mountains to try a new venture--selling cut Christmas trees in New York City.

In 1856, Franklin Pierce became the first president to have a Christmas tree in the White House. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lighted the first national Christmas tree on the lawn of the White House.

Now, two-thirds of all American families put up Christmas trees.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - December 13, 2002


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