While there are no hard facts about the origins of the Christmas tree, there is little question the Germans originated and popularized it. The earliest written record of a decorated evergreen tree for Christmas appears in 1521 in the German region of Alsace. In 1561, the same region had a forest ordinance saying that no one "shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes' length." The German families would set up Christmas trees in a prominent location in their home and decorate them. As these people moved or immigrated to other countries, they brought this tradition with them. By the 1700s, the Christbaum, or "Christ tree," was a German tradition. It quickly spread to other parts of Europe and finally to America.
America adapted slowly to some of the Christmas traditions, because of the Puritan influence. Many puritans felt that Christmas was too sacred of a holiday and should not be marred with Christmas trees and Christmas carols. When the Christmas tree later regained popularity, symbolism was common. The Christmas tree is a symbol of a living Christmas spirit. Because balsam fir twigs, more than any other evergreen twigs, resemble crosses may have had much to do with the early popularity of balsam fir used as Christmas trees.
In 1851, the Christmas tree market began when farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. In 1856, Massachusetts was the last existing state to declare Christmas a legal holiday. Since then, it has exploded into a tradition-rich, festive season. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. By 1920, the custom was nearly universal in the United States.
Today, the Christmas tree is common in all Christian countries except Spain, Italy, and some of Latin America. Instead, these countries share the custom of erecting a miniature reproduction of the stable and manger where Christ was born. Even the Japanese have adopted the Christmas tree, but with this twist: they decorate their tree with tangerines and delicate rice wafers-which enclose fortune-telling slips!
Towards the end of the 1800s, another variation of the traditional Christmas tree appeared: the artificial Christmas tree. It is believed that like so many other Christmas traditions, artificial Christmas trees also originated in Germany. The first artificial Christmas trees were metal wire trees covered with feathers. The most popular feathers came were goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers. The feathers were often dyed green to look like pine needles. In the 1930's, the Addis Brush Company created the first artificial-brush trees, using the same machinery that made their toilet brushes! The Addis 'Silver Pine' tree was patented in 1950. This innovative Christmas tree had a revolving light source under it. Colored gels allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree. This silver aluminum artificial Christmas trees became so popular that it was exported throughout the world!
The story of The National Christmas Tree begins with Franklin Pierce- the first President of the United States to introduce the Christmas Tree to the White House in 1856. However, this was not the start of the tradition now known as the "National Christmas Tree". In November 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge gave permission for the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse south of the White House. The organizers named the tree the "National Christmas Tree." That Christmas Eve, at 5 p.m., President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse and "pushed the button" to light the cut 48-foot Balsam fir, as 3,000 enthusiastic spectators looked on. The tree, donated by Middlebury College, was from the President's native state of Vermont. From 1924 to 1953 live trees, in various locations around and on the White House grounds, were lit on Christmas Eve. In 1954 the ceremony returned to the Ellipse and expanded its focus. Local civic and business groups created the "Christmas Pageant of Peace." Smaller live trees representing the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia, formed a "Pathway of Peace." On December 17, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower lit the cut tree donated by the people of Michigan. The White House used cut trees until 1973.
Central to the season's celebration is the living National Christmas Tree, a Colorado blue spruce from York, Pennsylvania, planted on the Ellipse October 20, 1978. The tree stands as a daily reminder of the holiday spirit and of the tradition each succeeding President has shared in since 1923.