In the year 440, the church set December 25 as the date on which Christians would celebrate Jesus’ birth because it coincided with the winter solstice, which was a festival time in most cultures. Scholars suggest the actual birth of Christ was more likely in the spring, when shepherds would be abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, while the new lambs were being born.
Evergreens have been associated with winter solstice celebrations since long before there was a Christmas season. The Romans decorated their temples with evergreen boughs for the Festival of Saturnalia and the Teutonic people of Northern Europe set up fir trees in their homes as a sign of life in the dead of winter. When Christianity became the norm, the trees stayed. Prince Albert, a German prince, brought the tradition of the Christmas tree with him when he married Queen Victoria in 1840.
In the United States, the earliest known mention of a Christmas tree is in the diary of a German who settled in Pennsylvania.
Franklin Pierce was the first president to decorate an official White House Christmas tree. Theodore Roosevelt, a staunch conservationist, banned Christmas trees in his home, including when he lived in the White House. His children, however, smuggled them into their bedrooms.
America’s official national Christmas tree is located in King’s Canyon National Park in California. The giant sequoia, named the “General Grant Tree,” is over 300 feet high. It was made the official Christmas tree in 1925.
Americans buy 37.1 million real Christmas trees each year; 25 percent are from the nation’s 5,000 tree farms. Trees grown in the wild have sparse branches, so cultured Christmas trees are shaped as they grow to produce fuller foliage. To slow the upward growth and the encourage branching, they are hand-clipped each spring. For every real Christmas tree harvested, two to three saplings are planted in its place.
California, Oregon, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are the top Christmas tree producing states. The best selling trees are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, Virginia pine, Balsam fir and white pine.
Christmas trees are edible. Many parts of pines, spruces and firs can be eaten. The needles are a good source of vitamin C. Pine nuts, or pine cones, are also a good source of nutrition.
Germany made the first artificial Christmas trees. They were made of goose feathers and dyed green.