Christmas in the United States would be unrecognizable without the traditions that German immigrants brought to America. The decorated Christmas tree in particular, arrived with German families and soon spread to other American homes.
Winter festivals had existed worldwide since ancient times and eventually many of those festivals' traditions became linked with Christmas. For example, the Germanic solstice festival of Yule featured banquets and celebration and Celtic Druids held a two-day solstice festival during which they lit candles and decorated their homes with holly and mistletoe. Celebrants all over the world incorporated customs from their wintertime festivals into the holiday, perhaps none more so than the Germans.
Several countries claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree, and there are competing mythologies that seek to explain what it all means. But while Christmas trees appear around the world, their origins are traced to regions with abundant evergreen forests, especially those in northern Europe.
Latvia and Estonia both claim to have been home to the first Christmas tree. Latvia traces its Christmas tree traditions back to 1510, when a merchant guild called the House of the Black Heads carried a tree through the city, decorated it, and later burned it down. Meanwhile, Estonia has countered those claims, saying it has evidence of a similar festival hosted by the very same guild in its capital city Tallinn in 1441.
Historians have cast doubt on both claims. Gustavs Strenga of the National Library of Latvia in Riga told the New York Times in 2016 that the guild's festivities were likely unrelated to Christmas. But that has not stopped these two countries from fighting for bragging rights. In Riga's Town Hall Square there is even a plaque that commemorates the spot of the first Christmas tree.
The true origin of the decorated Christmas tree appears to have started in present-day Germany during the Middle Ages.
In 1419, a guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, flour-paste wafers, tinsel and gingerbread. In "Paradise Plays" that were performed to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve, which fell on Christmas Eve, a tree of knowledge was represented by an evergreen fir with apples tied to its branches. There was also documentation of trees decorated with wool thread, straw, apples, nuts and pretzels.
The oldest Christmas tree market is thought to have been located just over the southwestern German border in Strasbourg in Alsace (which was back then part of the Rhineland, now in present-day France), where unadorned Christmas trees were sold during the 17th century as Weihnachtsbaum, German for Christmas tree.
The first record of an indoor decorated tree was in Strasbourg in 1605 and was decorated with roses, apples, wafers and other sweets.
Demand for Christmas trees was so high in the 15th century that laws were passed in Strasbourg cracking down on people cutting pine branches. Ordinances throughout the region of Alsace limited each household to one tree in the 1530s.
The tradition caught on among German families and slowly evolved through the years to what we know today. Protestant reformer Martin Luther is often credited with being the first to put lights on the Christmas tree after a nighttime stroll through the forest with twinkling stars above. German emigrants took these traditions with them as they resettled in other countries. By the 18th century, Christmas trees were all over Europe.
The tradition became increasingly popular in the 19th century, when the British royal family put up a Christmas tree and started a global trend. Queen Charlotte, the princess of a German duchy who married King George III in the mid-18th century, is thought to have introduced the first Christmas tree to the royal household. But it was another British queen who made Christmas trees the seasonal icon they are today.
In 1848, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert (another German transplant) captured the imaginations of royal watchers around the world when the Illustrated London News published an illustration of their family gathered around a decorated Christmas tree. Queen Victoria was a trendsetter of her time and so the tradition took off around the world.
Now, the most famous Christmas tree in London is the one that lights up Trafalgar Square each winter. This tree has a rich global history of its own: In 1947, Norway started the tradition of giving the U.K. a Christmas tree every year as a token of gratitude for its allyship during World War II, when the Norwegian government took refuge in the U.K. after the Nazi invasion.
Germany’s Christmas tree tradition also likely arrived in the United States in the late 18th century, when Hessian troops joined the British to fight in the Revolutionary War. In the years that followed, German immigrants also brought the traditionwith them to the U.S. and, over time, they "became a point of fascination for other Americans" according to historian Penne Restad.
American families adopted the Christmas tree more widely after 1850, when the Philadelphia-based magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book republished the royal family’s Christmas scene from Illustrated London News. However, the magazine made a few tweaks, editing out Victoria's crown and Albert's royal sash to transform them into one version of an American family.
But Christmas was not celebrated with much gusto until the Civil War, which reinforced for many the importance of home and family. In 1870, after the war's end, Congress made Christmas the nation's first federal holiday.
Electric Christmas lights eventually became the modern spin-off of the old-fashioned candles that Germans placed on their trees. Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb, is credited as the inventor of the first strand of lights. In 1882 his business partner, Edward H. Johnson, created the first Christmas tree illuminated with colored lights.
Today, the lighting of two beloved U.S. Christmas trees are part of the country’s ritual for ushering in the holiday season. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge oversaw the lighting of the first National Christmas Tree; a decade later, in 1933, New York City lit the first Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, which has since become a must-visit for tourists and New Yorkers alike each holiday season. Both trees have been illuminated every year since, except for a few years in the 1940's when they went dark due to blackout restrictions during World War II.
On a side note, the song "O Tannenbaum" was written in 1824 by Ernst Gebhard Salomon Anschütz. He was a well-known organist, teacher, poet, and composer from Leipzig, Germany. His song does not specifically refer to a Christmas tree that is decorated for the holiday with ornaments and a star. Instead, it sings of the green fir tree, as more of a symbol of the season. In German, a Tannenbaum is a fir tree; a Christmas tree is a Weihnachtsbaum. It was only when the song was translated to English that it became about a Christmas Tree.