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Christmas Tree Decorations
Nature Bulletin No. 211-A   December 18, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

CHRISTMAS TREE DECORATIONS
Christmas trees, decorated or "trimmed", apparently were first used in this country during the Revolutionary War by Hessian soldiers who, hired to fight for England, were thinking of the customs in their German homeland. An account of the festivities here at Fort Dearborn, in 1804, mentions a spruce Christmas tree. Some say that a Harvard professor from Germany had one in 1824. There is reliable evidence that there was such a tree in Cambridge, Mass., in 1832; and in Philadelphia two years later. The idea and the tradition spread rapidly through this country.

There are many legends about the origin of the Christmas tree, including the story that Martin Luther, strolling through the moonlit countryside one Christmas Eve, about 1535 AD, was so enchanted with the sparkle of the stars and the moonshine reflected by the glistening snowflakes on the evergreens that he cut a small tree, took it home to his family, and put small lighted candles on it to simulate those reflections. There are also legends in the Norse, French, English and other folklore. We do know that in Strasbourg, on the Rhine, there were Christmas trees in 1604, although there is no mention of lights or decorations. The custom gradually spread over all of Germany, to Finland in about 1800, thence to the other Scandinavian countries, and to England and France.

Now, the Christmas tree is common in all Christian countries except Spain, Italy, and some of Latin America -- where the custom is to erect a miniature reproduction of the stable and the manger where Christ was born. Even the Japanese have adopted the Christmas tree, decorating it with tangerines and delicate rice wafers which enclose fortune-telling slips.

In the United States the decorations at first, if any, consisted mostly of strings of popcorn or tufts of cotton as symbols of snow on the branches. Chains of white or colored paper, and strings of cranberries or of red haws, were also used. Candies, cookies, nuts, and fruit such as apples and oranges, were hung on the branches; sometimes pictures or models of hams, bacons, pumpkins and other food-stuffs. Manufactured strings of tinsel or glass balls, and baubles of glass or tin, gradually came into use; also striped candy canes and "icicles" of tinfoil; and, finally, colored electric lights of various shapes and sizes, to replace the candles responsible for so many fires and deaths. Many trees are now sprayed with a mist of metallic or plastic paint, or mica flakes, simulating frost and snow.

In Sweden and Norway, the Christmas tree is decorated with gold and silver stars, strips of colored paper, and miniature flags, of many nations, strung in garlands. In Sicily, olive trees decorated with oranges are sometimes used. Swiss trees, on which are hung gaily decorated pine cones and gilded nuts, have the snow of the Alps reproduced in cotton. A French tree may have sugar bon-bons and exquisite paper ornaments. In Poland, the tree is decorated with brightly-colored-paper peasants, paper clowns and miniature toys. The Ukrainian tree, hung with long garlands of bright red cranberries, is topped by the six-pointed star of the Orthodox Green Church and, symbolic of the manger in Bethlehem, has a heap of straw at the base. In Lithuania, straw from the fields is laboriously fashioned into windmills, bird cages, bells and geometric designs, to be hung upon the Christmas tree. In Holland, beneath the tree, the children leave their wooden shoes, filled with hay for St. Nicholas' white horse on which he jumps from roof to roof.

May all of YOU have a happy merry Christmas.


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