History of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree

This photo, circa 1895, is believed to be the Lesione family of Henryville, proudly posing with their Christmas tree.

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director

Monroe County Historical Association

The tradition of bringing evergreen boughs and even whole trees indoors during the winter solstice began in Europe well before there were reliable written records.

These early indoor trees were not adorned with fanciful decorations as Christmas trees are today. Relatively “modern” Christmas tree traditions did not begin until the 16th century — the Protestant reformer Martin Luther is credited with first decorating a small evergreen tree with candles, representing the stars in the sky that twinkled over Bethlehem.

Although the Christmas tree tradition was brought to Pennsylvania by early German colonists, the first documented Christmas tree in our commonwealth belonged to Lancaster resident Matthew Zahn. His 1821 diary entry reads, “Sally & our Thos. & Wm. Hensel was out for Christmas trees, on the hill at Kendrick’s saw mill.”

Throughout the 1800s, the Christmas tree grew in popularity. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England were featured in the London News in 1846 with an illustration of the royal family standing around a Christmas tree. This picture caused a sensation, and the Christmas tree became instant fashion for others to imitate.

By the late 1800s, the decorated tree movement had hit the United States, and the Christmas tree became commonplace in many American homes.

The first popular style of American Christmas trees did not look like the typical decorated trees of today. Such trees were 3 to 4 feet tall and stood on a table in the center of the room for all guests to enjoy. Ladies and children would spend hours crafting home-made decorations and ornaments using natural materials. Often, clusters of berries, nuts, pretzels, fruit, paper, raisins, cotton, and cookies adorned the evergreen branches of the tree. Small candles were clipped onto the outermost branches to illuminate the tree and show off the decorations. The candles would only be lit for a few minutes at a time because of the danger of fire.

Not much later, manufactured holiday ornaments became part of the tradition. The Easton Express advertised Christmas tree ornaments in 1867, while a Pottsville newspaper, in its December 1881 edition, boasted “charming little ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it seems almost a waste of time to make them at home.”

As Christmas trees became more and more popular, a demand for artificial, reusable trees arose. The first artificial trees were created in Germany in the 1880s. Concerned about extensive lumbering and the health of their forests, the German people created feather Christmas trees. Feather trees were made out of goose feathers that were dyed to resemble evergreen needles. The feathers were separated at the spine, then held secure using wire to form a branch. The branches of feathers were then inserted into a small wooden pole, representing the tree trunk, to make an “evergreen” Christmas tree. Pennsylvania Germans brought this tradition with them to America, and since then, a vast array of artificial trees in different styles, textures, materials, and even colors have come to decorate many Monroe County homes.

The National Christmas Tree Association maintains data on Americans and their Christmas tree spending habits. In 2014, the group revealed the average cost of a real tree was $39.50, and the average cost of an artificial tree was $63.60.

Households in the United States purchased approximately 26.3 million real Christmas trees with a retail value of $1.04 billion. About 13.9 million artificial trees were purchased with a total retail value of $1.19 billion. Eleven percent of U.S. homes will display both artificial and real Christmas trees this holiday season.

Whichever type or style of Christmas tree you might choose to help you celebrate the holidays, you can find one close to home. Artificial trees can be found at many different retailers. If you are among those who prefer the aroma and beauty of natural trees, you will be happy to know that according to 2012 agricultural census reports, Pennsylvania boasts 31,577 acres of land dedicated to Christmas tree farms. Monroe County has many tree farms which occupy a total of 658 acres.