O Tannenbaum: A History of the Christmas Tree

By Carole Gorney

It is fitting that this popular carol extolling the virtues of the fir tree was originally written in German because legend says the first Christmas “Tannenbaum” was introduced by St. Boniface (672-754) in the German town of Geismar. In fact, some of the earliest customs related to Christmas trees and their decorations can be traced back historically to Germany.

In the 16th Century, evergreen trees were erected in German market squares, where people danced and sang around them, and then set the tree on fire. Various guilds placed Christmas trees in front of their halls, and one written record describes a tree decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers being set up inside a guild house for the children. The practice of lighting candles on the tree on Christmas Eve can also be traced back to Germany in the 1700s.

Local History…And a Little Friendly Competition?

Given these roots, it is understandable that Christmas tree customs were brought early to the New World by German immigrants, many of whom settled in the Lehigh Valley.  Several U.S. cities, including Bethlehem and Easton, claim to have had the first Christmas tree in America.

Though Easton claims they had the first tree in 1816, research shows that the Moravians who settled in Bethlehem – which was named on Christmas Eve 1741 – are credited with having the first decorated tree, but it was only a wooden skeleton made with sprigs of evergreens, apples and pine cones. A hole was drilled at the end of each branch to hold a beeswax candle. This pyramid tree was preferred, according to Barbara Diettrich of the Moravian Historical Society, because the Moravians were too frugal to cut down a real tree.

In 1987, to further support Easton’s claim, Mayor Sal Panto (the current mayor of Easton who was also mayor at that time) had a blue spruce tree planted in Scott Park on Larry Holmes Drive with a plaque declaring, “America’s First Christmas Tree.” Jane Moyer, of the Northampton Historical and Genealogical Society would disagree, stating that “no proof” exists to support this claim.

Christmas Tree Sales

Like everything else associated with the December holiday, sales of Christmas trees are a huge business. Between 25- and 30-million real trees are sold in the U.S. each year, with 23 percent being purchased directly from tree farms and 62 percent from retail lots.  Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation in the number of Christmas tree farms, and fourth in the number of Christmas trees cut each year and acres in production, according to Stacy Henninger, communications director for the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Association. No wonder last year’s White House tree came from this state.

Local Lightings and Tree Farms

Most communities, including Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, have outdoor  trees with official lighting ceremonies. The South Bethlehem Historical Society has held an ethnic tree lighting – that represents 16 cultures – for nearly 20 years. The lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City and the National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn have become occasions for national television coverage.

The Lehigh Valley itself has several tree farms that sell freshly cut conifers that take an average of seven years to grow to a height of six feet.  The Unangst Tree Farm in Bath sells 6,000 trees each season, with 100 percent of the sales resulting directly from customers who visit the farm. A highly labor-intensive business, owner Roger Unangst says he spends several months in the summer shearing his 80,000 trees to assure that they maintain their pyramid shape that, according to tradition, is believed to have been chosen to represent the Holy Trinity. “Shearing and shaping is the most important cultural practice in Christmas tree production,” Unangst said.

People also have the option of cutting their own trees the way their grandparents or great-grandparents might have done. While tree farms are a fairly recent development, Henninger says the trend to buy trees from farms is increasing. In fact, when the economy declined, she says tree farm visits actually increased because people saw it as a relatively inexpensive, fun family activity.

Tranquility Tree Farm and Country Gift Shop, located in Emmaus, has fifteen acres of trees to choose from; families can cut their own or choose from a freshly cut tree. Children can enjoy a visit with Santa, observe Tranquility’s sheep herd and even ride a hay wagon to the farm’s 1800s-style barn which houses a gift shop.

Pine Brook Hollow Tree Farm and Pumpkin Patch, also located in Emmaus, offers families the option of choosing and cutting their own tree, or choosing a fresh cut Douglas, Fraser, or Norway Spruce tree. Families can enjoy a hot beverage along with fresh popcorn or apples, and sit by the fire in Pine Brook’s Christmas store, visit Santa and listen to live Christmas music.

For other holiday happenings, be sure to check out our Holiday Calendar in this issue.

Unangst Tree Farm

7317 Bethlehem-Bath Pike
Bath, PA 18014

Tranquility Tree Farm
5563 Acorn Drive
Emmaus, PA 18049

Pine Brook Hollow Tree Farm and Pumpkin Patch
4301 East Macungie Road
Emmaus, PA 18049

Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association
4305 North Sixth Street, Suite A
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17110

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