Why Do We Put Up Christmas Trees?

A fresh fir tree filled with twinkly lights and ornaments is the most iconic symbol of the holiday season, but how did this tradition get started?

You’ve most likely been tromping around a field to cut down your tree—or pulling it out of your attic—every holiday season for as long as you can remember. Setting up your Christmas tree and placing wrapped gifts underneath is the perfect way to start the holiday festivities. But, have you ever really thought about why we bring a live (or artificial, if that’s more your thing) tree into our living room and decorate it with tinsel and lights and strings of cranberry and popcorn?

The first use of evergreens

A number of different cultures brought evergreens inside during the winter. Because they stay green all year long, they had a special meaning during cold, dark times. Ancient Egyptians decorated their homes and temples with evergreen wreaths and trees in celebration of life, peace, and opulence during the solstice. They believed that the evergreens helped their sun god, Ra, recover from the illness of winter to grow stronger and brighter.

Pagans would decorate their homes with evergreen branches during the winter solstice to help remind them of spring during the short, dark days. The Romans knew that the solstice meant their farms and orchards would be fruitful again soon, so they marked the occasion with evergreen boughs. And in Northern Europe, priests of the Celts would decorate their druid temples with evergreens to symbolize their everlasting life with God. Druids also hung sprigs over their doorways and windows (or mistletoes) to keep evil spirits and disease away during the winter. Also, if you’re curious, this is why Christmas colors are red and green.

Becoming a symbol of Christianity

There are a few different theories about how the evergreen tree became a symbol of Christianity from a Pagan custom. One legend says that the English Benedictine monk Boniface cut down an oak tree to keep pagans from worshiping a god he didn’t believe in when in Germany in the eighth century. He also took the opportunity to convert pagans to Christianity. When a fir tree grew out of the place of the fallen oak, it became a symbol of Christ—the triangular shape of the tree was a representation of the Holy Trinity and it represented new life.

The first Christmas trees

The tradition of bringing an evergreen tree inside your home to decorate, however, started with the Germans in the 16th century. Christians would decorate them with nuts, apples, and gingerbread. Some chose to stack up wood creating a pyramid and decorated it with evergreen branches and candles in lieu of a tree. As Germans emigrated to other parts of the world, the tradition started to spread.

Christmas trees in America

Up until the 1840s, Christmas trees were still primarily seen as pagan symbols in America, so not many American homes had them. Then, in 1846, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, who was German, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing in front of their decorated Christmas tree with their children. Since Queen Victoria was very popular in Britain, many around the world—including those in America—started accepting the tradition, leading to Christmas trees becoming part of our yearly holiday routine. Now that you know why we put up trees, learn about the history behind some other Christmas traditions.

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Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is the Assistant Digital Managing Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When she’s not writing for rd.com or keeping the 650+ pieces of content our team produces every month organized, she likes watching HGTV, going on Target runs, and searching through Instagram to find new corgi accounts to follow.