The History of the Christmas Tree

History of Decorating With Evergreens a Controversial One

Christmas tree with ornaments and gifts in snow.
M L Harris/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

It may come as a surprise to some, but the history of the Christmas tree in winter holiday celebrations has not been one big merry sleigh-ride over a pristine snowfall. Decorating with evergreens seems so natural to us now, as it would have to pagans throughout history and pre-history. What could be more in keeping with the season than decking the halls with boughs of holly and hanging the kiss-provoking mistletoe?

 But the story behind such decorations is nothing if not a controversial one.

Get beyond the commercialism of Christmas, and think about the symbolism -- and the psychology. Evergreen trees and the clippings of evergreen shrubs are widely harvested from the Northern landscape and brought inside to promote good cheer and hope. When everything else on the landscape is dead or dormant, mistletoe, holly, laurels, boxwoods, yews and Christmas trees remind us of better times to come -- the return of a green landscape in spring. They also just plain look great as decorations: they infuse greenery into a season dominated outdoors by white, gray and brown. Yes, for most of us, it seems that the history of the Christmas tree should blend rather well with the history of the winter holiday celebrations themselves.

But did you know that Christmas tree decorating and using the clippings of evergreen shrubs as decorations for Christmas has been a controversial practice at times in Western history?

For instance, when the Roman Church decided in the fourth century that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25, some of the pagan celebrations of the Roman Saturnalia (celebrated at the same time of year) were carried over, such as feasting and exchanging gifts. But others were too controversial to carry over....

Using the clippings of evergreen shrubs from the landscape to decorate houses, a common practice during the December celebrations of Saturnalia, was strictly forbidden by the Church. The associations between decorating with evergreen shrubs and paganism were just too strong. Already in the early third century Tertullian had warned his fellow Christians against falling into the Saturnalian rut by using laurel wreaths as Christmas decorations (Tertullian, "On Idolatry," XV).

But the controversy over Christmas tree decorating and using clippings of evergreen shrubs as Christmas decorations is not relegated to that remote epoch in history. In the sixteenth century John Calvin objected to observing the Christian calendar -- which includes Christmas and Easter -- because he felt such celebrations promoted irreligious frivolity. It was in this same century that Germany, by contrast, was establishing Christmas tree decorating as we know it today, launching the modern history of the Christmas tree.

But in England the Puritans, influenced by Calvin, forbade the observance of Christmas. And it wasn't until Queen Victoria's reign that Christmas tree decorating "arrived" to stay as a Christmas tradition in England, thanks to the influence of Prince Albert (see The Christian Calendar: A Complete Guide to the Seasons of the Christian Year, Cowie and Gummer, p.11).

Not coincidentally, Prince Albert had been born in Germany.

Given its roots in English history, America was predictably late in adopting such signs of frivolity as Christmas tree decorating. The Massachusetts Puritans, in particular, frowned upon such pagan backsliding. But the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century was bound to dilute these anti-Christmas tree decorating sentiments.

But North America has made up for its past deficiencies in the celebration of Christmas and in Christmas tree decorating by introducing two innovations. 

Outdoor Christmas Tree Lighting

In 1882 Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, developed the idea of Christmas lighting that ran on electricity. This innovation made outdoor Christmas tree lights possible and fostered the idea of decorating the trees in your yard (as well as other objects) to create Christmas light displays.

The Virtual Museum writes, "As early as 1912, the first illuminated trees appeared in Boston's public areas. Outdoor Christmas trees quickly became commonplace in North America. After the First World War, this novelty reached Europe and became widespread towards the middle of the XXth century. In Canada, the fashion of the illuminated outdoor tree is very widespread.... In the suburbs, there are almost as many Christmas trees outside as there are inside."

The now well-established tradition of outdoor Christmas tree decorating complements the indoor Christmas tree decorating discussed on Page 1. The emergence of this tradition reflects the increasing appreciation people have for the importance of landscaping. In the North, we need to brighten our lives during winter outdoors, as well as indoors. Electric lights are an excellent choice for outdoor Christmas tree decorating. Not only are they durable, but they also can supply commodities often lacking on the winter landscape: color and light. Indeed, evergreens and outdoor lighting, whether used in conjunction or not, form the backbone of winter landscaping.

Many a Northern homeowner is now planting a Christmas tree in the yard, providing the landscape with a source of visual interest throughout the year -- but especially during the otherwise barren winter months. Some of these homeowners decorate their outdoor Christmas trees almost as profusely as they would indoor trees. One trend for homeowners is to buy a live Christmas tree for display inside, and to plant the tree outdoors after the holiday. This trend should only grow in strength in the future, as the real estate industry makes us more conscious of how much value landscaping can add to our properties.

Note that, when I say, "live" Christmas trees, I refer to those with roots. Many people refer to real Christmas trees that have been cut as "live," to distinguish them from artificial Christmas trees. But although cut Christmas trees were once live, they aren't anymore.

Tips for Planting Live Xmas Trees:

  • Dig the hole in the ground for planting well before Christmas, so you won't have to dig through frozen dirt. Bring the dirt that you remove from the hole inside, to keep it from freezing.
  • Don't forget that, as a living plant, your tree will need to be watered. Keep the rootball damp.
  • In terms of placement in the house during its stay inside, remember that avoiding extreme temperature transitions will be the key to your success in this project. Place the tree in the coolest spot that you can find in the house. And the less time the tree spends in the warm house, the better.
  • The day after Christmas, and before planting, the tree will need to go through a transitional period (for about 2 weeks) in terms of temperature: it needs to get out of the warm house, but it should not be put out into freezing temperatures immediately. A garage attached to a house (i.e., a sheltered yet unheated structure) might be the ideal intermediate storage facility for the tree during this transitional period.
  • When planting, the top of the rootball should end up level with the ground, or just slightly above.
  • If the roots came (balled-and-burlaped), this is the time to remove the burlap.
  • Water the newly-planted tree and apply mulch. Don't pile the mulch up against the trunk. About 3" of mulch is ideal: more than that can cause more problems than not mulching at all.
  • If decorating the tree with outdoor Christmas tree lights, choose small lights. The big ones give off too much heat -- they could damage the tree's needles.

Safety Tips for Outdoor Christmas Tree Lighting

  • Have a certified electrician install a GFCI outlet, if you don't already have one.
  • Make sure product is intended to be used for outdoor Christmas tree lighting and follow all manufacturer's instructions.
  • Any extension cords used for outdoor Christmas tree lights should also be intended specifically for use in the yard.
  • Water and electricity don't mix, so keep any connections out of the snow/puddles and insert bulbs into sockets such that the sockets point down.
  • Unplug outdoor Christmas lights before replacing bulbs.
  • Don't string outdoor Christmas tree lights on trees that come into contact with power lines.
  • If re-using old outdoor Christmas tree lights, inspect the wire to ensure that there are no wear spots.

Even if a live Christmas tree doesn't figure in your plans, you can at least find ways to re-use a cut Christmas tree:

10 Ideas for Recycling Christmas Trees

Recycling Christmas trees is not difficult, and I provide 10 green-living ideas below to get you started. Rather than thinking "disposal" every winter after the holiday, implement these ideas to recycle them and turn them into useful (and free!) landscaping components or decorations.

The simplest idea for recycling Christmas trees is to buy live Christmas trees, rather than cut ones. Live Christmas trees can be planted in the landscape afterwards. And if you really aren't at all interested in a creative solution, another idea is simply to get in touch with a local Christmas tree recycling center.

But let's assume you wish to learn about some creative ideas for recycling Christmas trees, so here are some thought-provoking alternatives to sending Tannenbaum to the landfill:

  1. Make "winter mulch"
  2. Chip it up to make conventional mulch
  3. Use as "flooring" at the bottom of a compost bin
  1. Build shrub shelters
  2. Use the trunk for garden stakes
  3. Use the trunk to build a rustic trellis
  4. Decorate a window box
  5. Make a kissing ball
  6. Use the needles in a sachet
  7. Use it as cover for wild birds

All of the ideas above assume that you will be cleaning the Christmas tree after you take it down. I.e., strip off all the tinsel, etc., first. Below I elaborate briefly on each of the 10 ideas, grouping them into 4 categories:

Recycling Christmas Trees for Mulch, Compost

By "winter mulch" I'm referring to a heterogeneous mulch applied around perennial flowers to protect them in winter, as opposed to a conventional, homogeneous mulch (such as bark mulch) that you would use in the landscape during the growing season. The winter mulch consists of a base layer (I prefer straw), which is then held down (so the wind doesn't blow it away) by a layer of evergreen branches -- which is where the recycled Christmas tree comes in to play.

If you have a wood chipper, you can run the trunk and branches through it to turn them into a conventional mulch. For use in a compost bin, remove a few of the branches and lay them down as "flooring" for the bottom of your compost bin. This flooring will provide aeration, allowing your compost to break down faster.

Recycling Christmas Trees for Garden Construction Projects

If you're the type who builds your own shrub shelters, garden stakes or rustic trellises out of natural material, you could always use another wooden pole, right? So why not use the trunk of the Christmas tree for this purpose? A store-bought garden trellis may be fine for a small vine, but I make my own trellises for growing hard-shell gourds, for example. Likewise, I can always use another pole with which to stake some of the taller perennials in my cottage garden planting.

Recycling Christmas Trees for Use in Decorations

Fill a window box with sand, then insert the branches (after trimming them down to an appropriate size) into the sand to form a backdrop for the berry clusters of winterberry holly. Or stick the branches into a Styrofoam ball to make a kissing ball. For an indoor decoration, incorporate the aromatic needles into a sachet, as you would with lavender.

Miscellaneous

Install recycled Christmas trees in your yard after the holidays are over, to provide cover for wild birds. Wild birds aren't as likely to come to a bird feeder located out in the open; they prefer natural nooks where they can hide. Providing such cover for them will help you in your efforts to attract birds to your yard. As an added touch, hang suet on the branches (or pinecones rubbed with peanut butter and rolled in bird food).

A Word of Warning

If you wish to burn a recycled Christmas tree as firewood, it's not a good idea to do so right after you take it down. The wood is still wet, posing a fire hazard from creosote buildup. If you wish to burn it in a stove, I would suggest adding it to your woodpile and drying it for a year. Spruces, pines, firs and balsams are softwoods that are useful as kindling.

In 1882 Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, developed the idea of Christmas lighting that ran on electricity. This innovation made outdoor Christmas tree lights possible and fostered the idea of decorating the trees in your yard (as well as other objects) to create Christmas light displays.

The Virtual Museum writes, "As early as 1912, the first illuminated trees appeared in Boston's public areas.

Outdoor Christmas trees quickly became commonplace in North America. After the First World War, this novelty reached Europe and became widespread towards the middle of the XXth century. In Canada, the fashion of the illuminated outdoor tree is very widespread.... In the suburbs, there are almost as many Christmas trees outside as there are inside."

The now well-established tradition of outdoor Christmas tree decorating complements the indoor Christmas tree decorating discussed on Page 1. The emergence of this tradition reflects the increasing appreciation people have for the importance of landscaping. In the North, we need to brighten our lives during winter outdoors, as well as indoors. Electric lights are an excellent choice for outdoor Christmas tree decorating. Not only are they durable, but they also can supply commodities often lacking on the winter landscape: color and light. Indeed, evergreens and outdoor lighting, whether used in conjunction or not, form the backbone of winter landscaping.

Many a Northern homeowner is now planting a Christmas tree in the yard, providing the landscape with a source of visual interest throughout the year -- but especially during the otherwise barren winter months. Some of these homeowners decorate their outdoor Christmas trees almost as profusely as they would indoor trees.

One trend for homeowners is to buy a live Christmas tree for display inside, and to plant the tree outdoors after the holiday. This trend should only grow in strength in the future, as the real estate industry makes us more conscious of how much value landscaping can add to our properties.

Note that, when I say, "live" Christmas trees, I refer to those with roots. Many people refer to real Christmas trees that have been cut as "live," to distinguish them from artificial Christmas trees. But although cut Christmas trees were once live, they aren't anymore.

Tips for Planting Live Xmas Trees:

  • Dig the hole in the ground for planting well before Christmas, so you won't have to dig through frozen dirt. Bring the dirt that you remove from the hole inside, to keep it from freezing.
  • Don't forget that, as a living plant, your tree will need to be watered. Keep the rootball damp.
  • In terms of placement in the house during its stay inside, remember that avoiding extreme temperature transitions will be the key to your success in this project. Place the tree in the coolest spot that you can find in the house. And the less time the tree spends in the warm house, the better.
  • The day after Christmas, and before planting, the tree will need to go through a transitional period (for about 2 weeks) in terms of temperature: it needs to get out of the warm house, but it should not be put out into freezing temperatures immediately. A garage attached to a house (i.e., a sheltered yet unheated structure) might be the ideal intermediate storage facility for the tree during this transitional period.
  • When planting, the top of the rootball should end up level with the ground, or just slightly above.
  • If the roots came (balled-and-burlaped), this is the time to remove the burlap.
  • Water the newly-planted tree and apply mulch. Don't pile the mulch up against the trunk. About 3" of mulch is ideal: more than that can cause more problems than not mulching at all.
  • If decorating the tree with outdoor Christmas tree lights, choose small lights. The big ones give off too much heat -- they could damage the tree's needles.

Safety Tips for Outdoor Christmas Tree Lighting

  • Have a certified electrician install a GFCI outlet, if you don't already have one.
  • Make sure product is intended to be used for outdoor Christmas tree lighting and follow all manufacturer's instructions.
  • Any extension cords used for outdoor Christmas tree lights should also be intended specifically for use in the yard.
  • Water and electricity don't mix, so keep any connections out of the snow/puddles and insert bulbs into sockets such that the sockets point down.
  • Unplug outdoor Christmas lights before replacing bulbs.
  • Don't string outdoor Christmas tree lights on trees that come into contact with power lines.
  • If re-using old outdoor Christmas tree lights, inspect the wire to ensure that there are no wear spots.

Even if a live Christmas tree doesn't figure in your plans, you can at least find ways to re-use a cut Christmas tree:

10 Ideas for Recycling Christmas Trees

Recycling Christmas trees is not difficult, and I provide 10 green-living ideas below to get you started. Rather than thinking "disposal" every winter after the holiday, implement these ideas to recycle them and turn them into useful (and free!) landscaping components or decorations.

The simplest idea for recycling Christmas trees is to buy live Christmas trees, rather than cut ones. Live Christmas trees can be planted in the landscape afterwards. And if you really aren't at all interested in a creative solution, another idea is simply to get in touch with a local Christmas tree recycling center.

But let's assume you wish to learn about some creative ideas for recycling Christmas trees, so here are some thought-provoking alternatives to sending Tannenbaum to the landfill:

  1. Make "winter mulch"
  2. Chip it up to make conventional mulch
  3. Use as "flooring" at the bottom of a compost bin
  1. Build shrub shelters
  2. Use the trunk for garden stakes
  3. Use the trunk to build a rustic trellis
  4. Decorate a window box
  5. Make a kissing ball
  6. Use the needles in a sachet
  7. Use it as cover for wild birds

All of the ideas above assume that you will be cleaning the Christmas tree after you take it down. I.e., strip off all the tinsel, etc., first. Below I elaborate briefly on each of the 10 ideas, grouping them into 4 categories:

Recycling Christmas Trees for Mulch, Compost

By "winter mulch" I'm referring to a heterogeneous mulch applied around perennial flowers to protect them in winter, as opposed to a conventional, homogeneous mulch (such as bark mulch) that you would use in the landscape during the growing season.

The winter mulch consists of a base layer (I prefer straw), which is then held down (so the wind doesn't blow it away) by a layer of evergreen branches -- which is where the recycled Christmas tree comes in to play.

If you have a wood chipper, you can run the trunk and branches through it to turn them into a conventional mulch. For use in a compost bin, remove a few of the branches and lay them down as "flooring" for the bottom of your compost bin. This flooring will provide aeration, allowing your compost to break down faster.

Recycling Christmas Trees for Garden Construction Projects

If you're the type who builds your own shrub shelters, garden stakes or rustic trellises out of natural material, you could always use another wooden pole, right? So why not use the trunk of the Christmas tree for this purpose? A store-bought garden trellis may be fine for a small vine, but I make my own trellises for growing hard-shell gourds, for example. Likewise, I can always use another pole with which to stake some of the taller perennials in my cottage garden planting.

Recycling Christmas Trees for Use in Decorations

Fill a window box with sand, then insert the branches (after trimming them down to an appropriate size) into the sand to form a backdrop for the berry clusters of winterberry holly. Or stick the branches into a Styrofoam ball to make a kissing ball. For an indoor decoration, incorporate the aromatic needles into a sachet, as you would with lavender.

Miscellaneous

Install recycled Christmas trees in your yard after the holidays are over, to provide cover for wild birds. Wild birds aren't as likely to come to a bird feeder located out in the open; they prefer natural nooks where they can hide. Providing such cover for them will help you in your efforts to attract birds to your yard. As an added touch, hang suet on the branches (or pinecones rubbed with peanut butter and rolled in bird food).

A Word of Warning

If you wish to burn a recycled Christmas tree as firewood, it's not a good idea to do so right after you take it down. The wood is still wet, posing a fire hazard from creosote buildup. If you wish to burn it in a stove, I would suggest adding it to your woodpile and drying it for a year. Spruces, pines, firs and balsams are softwoods that are useful as kindling.