The tradition of the Christmas tree has been around for over a thousand years. While a Christmas tree is a popular sight in today's Christian homes, the Church widely opposed it well into the Middle Ages. In fact, Christmas trees did not become popular until the mid-19th century.
Ancient Germanic tribes were the first to use Christmas trees and other evergreens to celebrate the winter solstice or Yule, which occurs every year between December 20 and 23. Other Pagan cultures, such as the Druids and the Celts, also used trees and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life and to honor the coming spring.
The first hint of the modern use of the Christmas tree happened in the 8th century. St. Boniface, commissioned by Pope Gregory II, was trying to convert Germanic tribes to Christianity and faced several difficulties, including the widespread use of pagan symbols. One of these symbols was the fir tree. Because it looks like a triangle, St. Boniface came up with the idea of using it as a symbol of the Trinity.
In 1510, the city of Riga, in Latvia, became the official home of the first decorated Christmas tree. Widespread acceptance of the Christmas tree, however, didn't come until the 18th century, when Prince Albert, the German-born husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the tradition to Windsor Castle. After that, the idea of using decorated trees inside homes quickly caught on around Europe.
The Christmas tree didn't make its way to America until the late 1800s, partly due to the Church's penalization of the practice. With the advent of electricity, Christmas trees started showing up in public squares, parks, and townships. While an early Christmas tree would have been decorated with strings of popcorn, pine cones, and homemade pictures, the coming of electricity started a new trend. Christmas lights became an instant sensation when they first appeared in the market in 1882, although their high cost made them prohibitive for most of the populace.
While the Christmas tree has gone through several transformations, including the introduction of artificial pines, "flocking," and the breeding of new species that shed less or slower, the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree has remained the best known symbol that Christmas is approaching.