The tree, used as a symbol of life, is a tradition older than Christianity and not exclusive to any one religion. It’s a part of our holiday customs that engages not only our senses of sight, touch, and smell, but also our sense of tradition, hope and good will.
Long before there was a Christmas, Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year in December as a symbol of life’s triumph over death.
Romans adorned their homes with evergreens during Saturnalia, a winter festival in honor of Saturnus, their god of agriculture. Druid priests decorated oak trees with golden apples for their winter solstice festivities. In the middle ages, the Paradise tree, an evergreen hung with red apples, was the symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve held on December 24th.
The first recorded reference to the Christmas tree dates to the 16th century. In Strasbourg, Germany (now part of France), families both rich and poor decorated fir trees with colored paper, fruits and sweets. The retail Christmas tree lot also dates back that far – in those times, older women would sell trees harvested from nearby forests.
The tradition spread through Europe and was brought to the United States by German settlers and by Hessian mercenaries paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. In 1804 U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) hauled trees from surrounding woods to their barracks at Christmas.
The popularity of the Christmas tree then proliferated. Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1842. In 1851, Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds loaded with trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York and opened the first retail lot in the United States. Franklin Pierce, our 14th President, brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn.
Since 1966, members of the National Christmas Tree Association have presented a beautiful, fresh Christmas tree to the President and first family. This tree is displayed each year in the Blue Room of the White House.
In Virginia, the winner of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association’s Annual Christmas Tree and Wreath Contests, has the honor of presenting the Governor’s Mansion trees and wreaths, usually the Monday after Thanksgiving. Each year, the Governor issues a proclamation designating December as Christmas Tree Month. Contact the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for details. www.vdacs.virginia.gov/media.shtml