From The Smart Set:
Dd it ever strike you as a strange thing to drag a living tree once a year into your home and set it up to worship? If you are old enough, you may have seen decorating fashions come and go: fir cones painted in gold, cardboard adornments — preferably in red or green — artfully sculpted little angels, fragile glass balls in all colors. And you may have noted that the tree itself has transformed from real to artificial. Fiberglass trees in vivid colors, such as bright blue, are popular. There is a small rotating porcelain tree that plays Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” Presley himself decorated his ranch house with a nylon tree that had red ornaments and a revolving base tootling Christmas songs. Let’s leave it to others to discuss whether this is still a “real” tree or not.
What Charles Dickens once called a “pretty German toy” has a long history, although it is somewhat difficult to reconstruct because historical documents are scarce. Reports of decorated trees go as far back as 1419; a Fraternity of Bakers’ Apprentices appears to have seen a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel in the local Hospital of the Holy Spirit in the guilds of craftsmen, in Freiburg, Germany. It’s possible that the inspiration for this practice came from the Christian paradise play, which was popular in Europe in the late Middle Ages. It already had a decorated tree at the center, was performed on Christmas Eve, retold the story of how original sin came to be, and showed the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise. This tree then freed itself from the religious context of this play and began its path toward the Christmas celebrations of some guilds in the southwest of Germany. A few decades later, tree fellings must have become so prevalent that a Strasbourg town clerk found it necessary to forbid the custom of cutting off pine branches and bringing them home.
For two centuries, the adorned tree remained a peripheral phenomenon until the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie of the German states discovered it, where it soon became a focus of the Christmas celebration. Its popularity is tied to the rise of a new way of living, and the architectural division of houses and mansions. Soon the decorated tree could be placed in a “parlor” and unfold its particular effect. From here onwards, it’s easy to see how the tree evolved into what it is today.