Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

A History of the American Christmas Tree

image of a christmas tree

For many Americans, Christmas trees are among their most treasured symbols of the season. Nearly 80% of American households had a Christmas tree in 2019.  But, if you know a little Christmas history, you know that they were not always a major part of Christmas celebrations.  Although they might be an essential part of our Christmas today, indoor trees only became widespread in America at the end of the 19th century.  

image of a christmas tree
The Rottmann Family Christmas tree (courtesy of the author)

The earliest American Christmas trees

As with most popular customs, it is impossible to affix an exact date to the first American Christmas tree.  An 1809 watercolor by Lewis Miller, a Pennsylvanian folk artist, may be the earliest drawing of an American tree.  However, the first recorded indoor tree can be dated to 1777 when a German mercenary who had been fighting with the British was captured at the Battle of Bennington, Vermont.  Years after, he and his wife lived in a small cabin in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, celebrating their Christmases around an evergreen.  

German settlers in Pennsylvania arriving between 1727 and 1775 were probably the first Americans to have trees. Those trees were decorated with seasonal fruits like apples, chains of berries, cookies, nuts, candies and candles. 

image of family near a decorated Christmas tree
A family gathers around a Christmas tree decorated with fruits, nuts, and candies

The trendy tree

But, Christmas trees were not widely popular until after an engraving was widely distributed in 1848 showing Britain’s Queen Victoria and her German husband, Albert, next to their “tannenbaum.” Queen Victoria was wildly popular, both in her homeland and in the United States, and her actions could spark fashion trends.  Ironically, indoor trees caught on a century earlier in the U.S. than they did in Britain, even though America’s Puritans had previously seen trees as pagan relics that had no business in Christian ritual.  Are you surprised to learn that early Americans preferred bigger trees than Europeans?  While most Europeans had four-foot-tall trees, Americans preferred floor-to-ceiling greenery dominating their living rooms.

image of a potted Christmas tree
A smaller Christmas tree

Famous firsts for the American Christmas tree

The first U.S. President to have a Christmas tree in the White House was Franklin Pierce (1856).  By the 1870s, Christmas trees were becoming common in American homes. It was also possible to purchase adornments like German glass ornaments and colorful balls at Macy’s.  Strands of electric lights were invented in the 1880s by a supporter of Thomas Edison, and Grover Cleveland was the first president to use them on a tree in 1895.  New York City had the country’s first public tree lighting in 1912 in Madison Square Park. The tree lighting later moved to Times Square (1926) and Rockefeller Center (1933).  Soon cities across the country began holding tree lightings in order to add color and cheer to their Christmas festivities.

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