Odds are You’ll have a Christmas Tree—and that It’s Artificial
We have Germany to thank for our Christmas trees.
The earliest record of the custom in the United States comes from the small town of Winsor Locks, Connecticut. A captured Hessian soldier, homesick for the Christmas custom of his native Germany, decorated a tree in 1777 to express his gratitude for the kind treatment he had received.
In 1832, a Harvard professor, also a German, put up a tree at his home in Cambridge, decorated with 7 dozen candles, gilded eggs, and paper cornucopia filled with candies. Ten years later, his colleague in the classics department at the College of William and Mary, Charles Minnegerode, another German, introduced the Christmas tree to the South. However, it was not until 1848 when the London Illustrated News printed a lithograph of the Christmas tree erected at Windsor Palace by Prince Albert, the German husband of England’s Queen Victoria, that Americans adopted the Christmas tree in large numbers. Soon American housewives were fashioning paper garlands and gilding walnuts, inspired by lithographs of the event printed in the most famous woman’s magazine of the day, Godey’s Ladies Book.
European trees were tabletop affairs, but in America, they soon became “supersized” as the wealthy competed to make a display that would amaze their friends and neighbors and American entrepreneurs spotted an opportunity to make money.
- Advertisements for Christmas trees began appearing in the New York Times in 1843, and by 1878, one newspaper estimated that 150,000 trees had been brought to the city from Maine, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. Today, the odds an adult who celebrates Christmas usually puts up a Christmas tree are 1 in 1.14 (88%).
- F. W. Woolworth first imported German glass ornaments into the United States in the 1880s. By the turn of the century, Woolworth Five and Dime Stores were selling $25 million a year in ornaments, from simple balls to elaborate ornaments.
- World War I created a backlash against all things German, and in the early 1930s, the Corning Company of New York captured Woolworth’s business.
- In 1901, the first Christmas tree farm was started by W. V. McGalliard, who planted 25,000 Norway spruce seedlings on his New Jersey farm. They came to maturity in 1908 and he sold them for $1 each. Today the National Christmas Tree Association estimates that 25-30 million real trees are sold each year, almost all from Christmas tree farms. The odds an acre of farmland is devoted to growing Christmas trees are 1 in 2,685.
- In 1913, Sears Roebuck and Company advertised the first artificial trees to be sold in America, modeled after trees made from feathers which were popular in Germany. In the 1930s, artificial trees began to be made by the Addis Brush Company, maker of toilet brushes.
- In the 1950s, plastic trees came on the market, only to be briefly replaced in the 1960s by metallic trees which were illuminated from below by a revolving multicolor light. Today, the odds an adult who usually puts up a Christmas tree chooses an artificial one are1 in 1.72 (58%). Some come with a bag of real pine needles to scatter beneath, and those who miss the smell of evergreen can adorn the plastic with pine-scented oil.
The first trees were lit with candles, and because of the risk of fire, the Christmas tree was usually decorated on December 24th, with one member of the family assigned to hold a bucket of water to douse it in case of emergency. Newspapers were filled with accounts of tragic accidents in the days following Christmas.
Thomas Edison created the future of decorative Christmas lighting at his “invention factory” in Menlo Park, New Jersey. In 1880, he laid out 8 miles of wire and strapped electric globes to posts. One of the first visitors to the spectacle was the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who clapped her hands with delight when Edison turned the wheel that lit up acres of starry lights. The display landed Edison a contract to electrify Manhattan.
Two years later, Edward H. Johnson, an Edison employee, hand wired 80 red, white, and blue bulbs into a revolving Christmas tree in his New York City home. The effect was “a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue—all evening,” an entranced reporter wrote.
Early lights had to be wired by hand and burned so hot that they were as likely to enflame the tree as the candles they replaced. In 1903, General Electric offered pre-strung lights-- though they cost $12.00 for a set of 24 lights, just under the average weekly wage.
San Diego, California was the first to use Christmas lights outdoors in 1904, with New York City following in 1912. Today, entire neighborhoods wreathe themselves in lights during the dark days of December. Some individuals have taken their efforts to an extreme, like Jennings Osborne of Little Rock, Arkansas, whose house, illuminated by 3 million lights, could be spotted by planes 80 miles away.