Thousands of years ago, evergreen trees were symbols of life during winter, when other vegetation existed only in stark, brown bareness and conifers were still fresh and fragrant.
Although a symbol of Christmas today, evergreens were considered winter’s treasures long before the Christian era. The ancient Romans and Greeks decorated their homes and temples with wreaths and garlands, especially during holidays and celebrations like December’s winter solstice.
Those who live in colder climes brought boughs indoors to enjoy their clean, fresh smell. And some pre-Christian cultures even believed evergreens could ward off illness, others that they held the promise for successful planting and abundant harvests.
But it wasn’t until the 16th century that evergreens assumed their official role in Western civilization’s beloved winter holiday. It was in Riga, Latvia, that the first documented Christmas tree found its way to the town square for festivity.
And although legend may give credit to St. Boniface for bringing the first fir tree indoors during an eighth-century Christmas, it was 16th-century German Christians who are awarded the distinction of bringing the first “tannenbaum” — German for fir tree — inside their homes for the holiday.
Centuries later, in 1841, another German, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, brought his homeland’s tradition of the tannenbaum into England’s Windsor Castle. It wouldn’t be long before the British royal family’s new custom spread across the United Kingdom and eventually the United States.
Today’s Christmas tree
In New England, it’s fir trees that most favor when buying a Christmas tree, according to both Tim Lamprey, owner of Salisbury’s Harbor Garden Center, and Freeman Condon, owner of Beach Plum Farms Garden Centers in Salisbury and Newburyport.
“Balsam firs have that traditional Christmas tree smell for most people,” Lamprey said. “But Fraser firs are gaining in popularity. Frasers are known for holding their needles longer, and the needles have a silvery hue underneath that many think reflects the lights better.”