107 years ago, in December of 1912, Madison Square Park was the site of the country’s first public Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The idea of a public Christmas tree was first proposed by Emilie D. Lee Herreshoff as a way to allow all New Yorkers, rich and poor, to enjoy the home holiday tradition. That year, the Park attracted 25,000 visitors and became the country’s first public Christmas tree lighting, featuring electric twinkling lights at a time when electric lighting was not yet common throughout the US.
To this day, we continue that tradition with a 30-foot tall Norway spruce tree from Dome’s Tree Farm in Bliss, New York. The Norway spruce is widely planted throughout the US and has naturalized throughout the Northeastern part of the country. The oldest living Norway spruce is located in its native range of Sweden and is a clonal tree that has regenerated new trunks, branches, and roots over the past 9,558 years. It is currently the third oldest living clonal tree. Fun fact: Norway spruce have the longest pine cones of any spruce!
While we may be situated where the first public tree was lit, decorating trees for the holidays has a long history both in the US and around the world. The use of evergreen trees have held significance with cultures stretching as far back as Ancient Egyptian solstice celebrations and the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Romans would hack down trees and bring them into their homes during this festival. Because evergreen plants remain green throughout the year, they were of great importance to many cultures—they are a promise of the return of warm seasons ahead and is symbolic of the sun.
While differences would persist in the size and style of trees, as well as in the manner of decoration, the Christmas tree had reached new heights of popularity and had enmeshed itself in Christmas traditions. The rise of electricity saw the creation of electric lights, which replaced the traditional candles tied to stems, and the homemade decorations that were once ubiquitous had their place taken with mass-produced glass, and eventually plastic, ornaments.
Decorative holiday trees have become a popular end of year tradition for many cultures. Even outside of North America, many countries find themselves celebrating festivities and decorating trees around this time, such as Japan, where the holiday is not a national day off as it is in the US, but is nonetheless an extremely popular celebration. Holiday trees have become synonymous with the festivities of the season, spending time with friends and family, and saying goodbye to the old year before welcoming in a new one.