The Egyptians, Romans, Celts, and Vikings used spruces (and similar plants) as symbols of everlasting life. These types of trees have always had significance in cultures around the world. The Christmas tree custom as we know it today (as a Christian custom) was developed in early modern Germany, sometime before the 16-1700s.
While hanging evergreens around the home was a popular occurrence, King George III’s German wife, Charlotte, brought the practice of decorating trees to London. Their granddaughter, Queen Victoria (and her German husband, Prince Albert) had fond memories of decorating spruces, so they continued the tradition. Unlike George III & Charlotte, Victoria & Albert were extremely popular among their people, and when this picture of them decorating their tree in Windsor Castle was published in tabloids, the public followed suit and brought trees into their homes every year after.
German immigrants in Pennsylvania had been setting up trees as far back as the 1830’s. Community trees in PA had been custom as early as 1747. However, the tradition was largely viewed as a pagan practice and was avoided by most Americans until the late 19th century. This is because of the heavy pilgrim influence that set laws avoiding “pagan mockery” of Christian holidays. The General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making it an offense if anyone celebrated Christmas in any way other than attending mass. People received fines for decorating. However, the domination of German and Irish immigrants towards the middle/end of the 1800’s drowned out these strict notions of “pagan symbolism” and turned Christmas into the jolly, merry, yet still sacred experience it is for us today.
“After dinner… we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…” -one of Queen Victoria’s early diary entries.