A man walks past the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center before sunrise on Dec. 5, 2019, in New York City.
Gary Hershorn—Getty Images
December 5, 2019

The Christmas tree that was lit up at New York City’s Rockefeller Center on Wednesday night — a 77-foot, 12-ton Norway Spruce — and the one lit up at the White House on Thursday night may be unusually large, but in other respects they will be merely two in countless trees bought this month. Many people who celebrate Christmas have already decorated their own evergreens to enjoy for the month of December.

Here’s a look at the history of the tradition of Christmas trees — both real and artificial — and how they became a holiday tradition.

The Origins of Christmas Trees

Records of using greenery to celebrate the holidays predate widespread use of the phrase “Christmas tree.” Rural English church records from the 15th and 16th centuries indicate that holly and ivy were bought in the winter — hence the British carol “The Holly and the Ivy.” Private houses and streets were also decorated with greenery at this time, according to Judith Flanders’ Christmas: A Biography. Flanders posits that a precursor to the Christmas tree can be seen in the pole that parishes would decorate with holly and ivy, like a winter Maypole; one account describes a storm in London that knocked over a poll that’s described as “for disport of Christmas to the people.”

A lot of myths surround the origins of Christmas trees. One legend says that Martin Luther, who catalyzed the Protestant Reformation, believed that pine trees represented the goodness of God. Another myth popular in the 15th century tells the story of St. Boniface, who in the 8th century thwarted a pagan human sacrifice under an oak tree by cutting down that tree; a fir tree grew in its place, with its branches representing Christ’s eternal truth. Some versions of this St. Boniface legend say he cut down the new fir tree and hung it upside down, which is believed to have led to the tradition of trees being hung upside down to represent the Holy Trinity — sometimes with an apple wedged at the point instead of a star. All of these stories may have helped the Christmas tradition spread.

But the real origins of Christmas trees appear to be rooted in present-day Germany during the Middle Ages.

In 1419, a guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, flour-paste wafers, tinsel and gingerbread. In “Paradise Plays” that were performed to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve, which fell on Christmas Eve, a tree of knowledge was represented by an evergreen fir with apples tied to its branches. Flanders finds documentation of trees decorated with wool thread, straw, apples, nuts and pretzels.

The oldest Christmas tree market is thought to have been located just over the southwestern German border in Strasbourg in Alsace (which was back then part of the Rhineland, now in present-day France), where unadorned Christmas trees were sold during the 17th century as Weihnachtsbaum, German for Christmas tree. Flanders says the “first decorated indoor tree” was recorded in 1605, in Strasbourg, decorated with roses, apples, wafers and other sweets, according to her research.

Demand for Christmas trees was so high in the 15th century that laws were passed in Strasbourg cracking down on people cutting pine branches. Ordinances throughout the region of Alsace limited each household to one tree in the 1530s.

How Christmas trees got popular in U.S.

References to Christmas trees in private homes or establishments in North America date back to the late 18th century and early 19th century. Flanders mentions a reference to a pine tree in North Carolina in 1786. In 1805, a school for American Indians run by Moravian missionaries sent students “to fetch a small green tree for Christmas.” Similar examples pop up in the first half of the 19th century in the Midwest and further West, such as the German immigrants in Texas who decorated trees with moss, cotton, pecans, red pepper swags and popcorn.

But the image of a decorated Christmas tree with presents underneath has a very specific origin: an engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children gathering around a Christmas tree, eyeing the presents underneath, published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. The premier women’s magazine in America back then, Godey’s Lady’s Book, reprinted a version of the image a couple of years later as “The Christmas Tree.”

Illustrations of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children gathered around their Christmas tree helped popularize this tradition in the U.S.
Getty Images

“This single image cemented the Christmas tree in the popular consciousness, so much so that by 1861, the year of Albert’s death, it was firmly believed that this German prince had transplanted the custom to England with him when he married,” writes Flanders.

The tradition of gigantic Christmas trees in public spaces seems to be an American one that dates back to the late 19th century. The electricity lobby pushed for the first “National Christmas Tree” at the White House as a publicity stunt for the glories of electricity: a nearly 60-ft.-tall balsam fir tree covered in 2,500 light bulbs. A 20-ft.-tall Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center first went up in 1931 when the building was still under construction; by putting so many people unemployed during the Great Depression back to work, the tree became a symbol of hope.

The changing Christmas tree

In December 1964, TIME magazine heralded a new Christmas trend: fake trees.

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The Polyvinyl versions looked more realistic than ever before, and they made up about 35% of the $155 million Christmas tree business in the U.S., according to an article headlined “And a Profit In A Polyvinyl Tree.”

Fifty years later, artificial trees still dominate the Christmas tree industry. Of the roughly 95 million American households with Christmas trees in 2018, 82% of the trees were artificial and 18% were real, according to a Nielsen survey. The reasons for this ratio are many. Climate change has made trees more difficult to grow. Farmers planted fewer trees during the Great Recession, and in general, trees take 7 to 10 years to grow. And there are even shortages of the farmers who grow them, as they age out of the business. Artificial trees are also hailed as having a lower environmental impact than buying trees, when the transporting them to retail outlets is factored in.

But the National Christmas Tree Association is appealing to those same environmentally conscious consumers by arguing that real trees support local economies — they are grown in the U.S. and in Canada, while many plastic trees are manufactured in China — and that real trees are renewable resources and recyclable, while the artificial kinds could contain some non-biodegradable parts.

Five decades ago, a professor in Montreal who was hard at work trying to develop a longer-lasting real tree explained to TIME the larger philosophical argument for preserving the tradition of real Christmas trees: “We live in an artificial environment. The Christmas tree is one of the few things left that is natural.”

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

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