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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

History of the Christmas tree

STILLWATER, Okla. – The sight and smell of real Christmas trees gives us a reminder of many happy moments in the past, along with the promise of the bright future that spring is sure to bring

The tradition of putting up a real Christmas tree dates far back, even before the advent of Christianity. However, that tradition has been somewhat challenged as many Americans now purchase and display artificial Christmas trees.

Craig McKinley, retired Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension forestry specialist, gives a brief history lesson and timeline of the Christmas tree.

“Christmas trees have been around longer than Christmas,” he said. “Surprisingly, the first greenery and then the early display of trees had nothing to do with a Christian holiday.”

The ancient Egyptians celebrated the winter solstice, which in the Northern hemisphere falls on Dec. 21 or Dec. 22, with evergreen boughs hung over doors and windows. Their celebration was in respect to the sun god, who was finally beginning to get well.

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we know it in the 16th century. However, the first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by German settlers in Pennsylvania. And, the rest as they say, is history.

“The trend we are seeing is people going for the convenience of artificial Christmas trees,” McKinley said. “The Christmas tree industry has seen a decline in producers and sales from the 1980s, but for the past few years, sales of real trees have leveled to about 31 to 33 million per year across the U.S.”

Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since the mid 1800s and the industry now employs approximately 100,000 people.

President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in 1923, with the National Christmas Tree Association providing the president the first family with its tree since 1966.

In 1912, the first community Christmas tree in the United States was erected in New York City.

“There is a lot of history and tradition that comes with a real Christmas tree, not to mention its simple beauty, aroma and freshness,” McKinley said. “I think most of us have fond memories of the family gathered around a just-cut tree.”

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