The Back Story: The Christmas Tree

Growing Christmas trees is a long tradition for the Shealer family of Eastern Pennsylvania. One year, they even provided a tree for the Clinton White House.

"This has been a family business since 1945," says Paul Shealer, owner of Evergreen Acres tree farm in Auburn, Pa. "We have grown over the years from what used to be a hobby."

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the first known decorated Christmas Tree made its appearance in Riga, Latvia, half a millennium ago, in 1510. Not much is known about it.

Five centuries later, 25 to 30 million trees are sold annually in the U.S. That’s a lot, but it’s far fewer than in Germany, where 50 million trees are cut annually, according to Rick Moore, owner of Moore Tree Farms in Groton, N.Y.

"I went over to Germany a year ago; the Christmas tree market is twice as large in Europe than the U.S.," Moore said.

Interestingly, evergreens have no biblical ties to celebrating Christmas.

Gregg Allison, professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asserts that "The Christmas tree is not by any means an essential element of Christianity or the story of the birth of Jesus. There is no association from a biblical and theological point of view."

But the trees do have religious origins. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Druids and Celts all celebrated festivals around them.

Germanic tribes connected trees with deities, and some sacrificed animals or slaves to them. But St. Boniface, an English Monk, put a stop to it in the seventh century.

Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, a series of Christian-based animated videos for children, has produced a new DVD called “Buck Denver Asks ...'Why Do We Call it Christmas?'” In it, he tells the tale that "St. Boniface got so mad that he picked up an ax and chopped down Odin's oak tree. And that ended the practice. And then he said, OK, you guys love trees, look at the evergreen. It's ever green, it never dies. It's the eternal life that Jesus gives you. It's an arrow. It points to heaven. It points to God."

A few hundred years later, the legend goes, Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, found safe passage from a dark forest in Germany with the help of moonlight and stars twinkling through the spaces of an evergreen's branches. He cut down a fir tree, brought it home and attached candles to it as a symbol of God's light, shining in the darkness.

"This is particularly important,” Allison says, “because it will be the Germans that will introduce the Christmas Tree to the Americans and the U.S.”

During the Revolutionary War, the Hessians, German soldiers hired by the British to put down the Americans, brought the custom of decorating Christmas trees to the colonies.

They decorated their trees with dried fruit and cookies, which later gave way to ornaments, and then electric lights.

Today, choosing the perfect tree is a family affair.

Devin Stein and his two young children make an annual visit to Evergreen Acres. "We come out every year and get a tree and decorate it,” Stein says. “And mom works second shift, so I’ll surprise her when she comes home from work and the tree is all decorated."

Shealer makes sure his trees are trimmed to hold the best part ... the star.

"To me, that's the most important part of the tree, is the top,” he says. “I put more effort getting a nice top."

And it's the star at the top, symbolizing the one that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem, that lights the way to a Christmas tradition.