Long before the dawn of Christianity, trees and plants that remained green throughout the year were used in pagan rituals. During the winter solstice, many cultures decorated their homes with branches of the fir tree as a reminder of spring.
Germany is often credited with beginning the tradition of the Christmas tree as we know it. In the 16th century, devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Others built Christmas pyramids made of wood and decorated with evergreens and lit candles when trees were scarce.
No account of the origins of the Christmas tree is complete, however, without the story of St. Boniface. In 722, Boniface traveled to Germany to preach Christianity to the barbarian tribes. According to the story, he came across a group of pagans in the woods who were about to sacrifice a young boy while worshiping an oak tree. In order to stop the sacrifice, Boniface immediately cut down the great oak and, to the utter amazement of the pagans, a young fir tree sprang up immediately from its roots. Boniface took this as a clear sign of the Christian faith and lit the tree with small candles so that he could continue preaching to the barbarians throughout the night.
Yet another German legend tells that, on one cold Christmas Eve night, a woodsman and his family were gathered around the fire in their small cottage. Suddenly, there was a knock on the cottage door. Upon opening, the woodsman found a poor little boy standing on the stoop, lost and alone. The woodsman welcomed the boy into their poor home, fed him and gave him a warm bed for the night. The next morning, Christmas, the family was awoken by a choir of angels and the poor boy was transformed into the boy Jesus. The Christ child walked to the garden in front of the cottage and, breaking a branch from a fir tree, presented it to the family as a gift for their charity.
Whatever its true origins, the tradition of the Christmas tree continued to spread around the world. However, most 19th century Americans held the tradition of the Christmas tree as an oddity. In fact, the first record of a tree on display in America was not until the 1830s, when a group of German settlers from Pennsylvania introduced their native custom.
Then, in 1846, there appeared a sketch of Queen Victoria in the Illustrated London News standing with her husband and children around a Christmas tree. Victoria was extremely popular in her country and what was done at court immediately became fashionable – and not only in Britain, but with the fashion conscious East Coast American society as well. The Christmas tree had finally arrived!