Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen branches over their doors and windows. In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day/longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the Winter Solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a God and that winter came every year because the Sun God had become sick and weak. They celebrated the Solstice because it meant that at last, the Sun God would begin to get well. Evergreen branches reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the Sun God was strong and summer would return.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped a God called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolised the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honour of Saturn, the God of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that farms and orchards would soon be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen branches. In Northern Europe, Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen branches as a symbol of everlasting life. The Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the Sun God, Balder.
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. It is believed that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was drawn in by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst the evergreens. To recreate the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired lighted candles to its branches
Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas Trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
In 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous Royals, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society.
The Christmas tree had arrived.