The Tea On Trees

Little girl decorating Christmas tree at home, in a story about the history of the Christmas tree.
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A Quick History Of The Christmas Tree To Tell Your Kids While You Decorate

Perfect if your kid loves a fun fact.

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Decorating a Christmas tree is one of those things that, if you think about it, is kind of strange — once a year, we trudge out into the snow, cut down a perfectly happy, healthy tree, and drag it home to decorate its dying limbs with lights and shiny baubles. So, why do we have Christmas trees, anyway? The history of the Christmas tree goes back quite a few centuries, though where exactly the tradition of decorating our indoor evergreens began is hotly contested.

Here’s a little history lesson you can share with your kids while you decorate, and some fun facts about how Christmas has been celebrated throughout history, around the world.

Latvia and Estonia both claim to be the home of the first-ever Christmas tree.

Latvian historians say in 1510, a well-known merchant guild (called the House of the Black Heads) carried an evergreen tree through the city square, decorated it, and later burned it, according to National Geographic. Estonian experts say that same guild did that very same thing, but on their turf, all the way back in 1441. To add to the confusion, other historians believe the first Christmas tree was erected in 1539 in Strasbourg Cathedral, located in Germany (but the area is actually now French territory).

A Christmas tree stands in the town square in Riga, Latvia, outside the House of the Black Heads’ former residence.Shutterstock

In short, no one can seem to agree on exactly when or where the first tree went up. If you want a simple answer to tell your kids, maybe go with Latvia — they installed their own plaque to commemorate the first Christmas tree’s location in Riga, their capital city. So, that makes it official, right?

Wherever they got started, Christmas trees took off in Germany.

In 1554, the town of Freiburg actually had to ban cutting down trees because they were losing too much of the forest to the Christmas tree trend, Nat Geo reports. Good ol’ Protestant reformer Martin Luther is supposedly the first person to put lights on a tree (though lights didn’t exist yet, so he used candles). It was also common to decorate your tree with apples and nuts, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. As German citizens moved and resettled in other parts of Europe over the centuries — and later to America — they took the Christmas tree tradition with them. In 1848, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert published an illustration of their family around a decorated Christmas tree with toys underneath its boughs, and the evergreens became a staple in U.K. households from then on.

In America, Christmas trees got supersized.

While trees were originally more of a tabletop decoration (or even small tree tips hung from the ceiling), the hip new thing to do was have a full-size, floor-to-ceiling tree in your house, per the National Christmas Tree Association. Franklin Pierce, the 14th U.S. president, was the first to put up a Christmas tree in the White House.

The first artificial Christmas tree cost 50 cents.

Sears, Roebuck & Company started selling artificial Christmas trees in 1883. The smaller size had 33 limbs and cost 50 cents. The larger tree boasted 55 limbs and would run you $1.

In 1901, the first Christmas tree farm was planted.

The Good Brigade/DigitalVision/Getty Images

The farmer, W.V. McGalliard, planted 25,000 Norway spruce trees on his land in New Jersey. Conservationists and the federal government had grown concerned about deforestation from so many people cutting down evergreens in the winter, and farming the trees helped offset that damage. And it’s a good thing — between 25 and 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year, and nearly all of them come from Christmas tree farms.

So, if your kid loves trivia and and tidbits of history, maybe they’ll enjoy hearing a thing or two about the history of the Christmas tree while you decorate yours together.

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