Although there are many varying ideas on the origin of the Christmas Tree, the common thought is that the Christmas tree actually predates Christianity. King Tut may have never seen a Christmas tree, but he would have understood the tradition. The Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrives, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life's triumph over death.
We know that Ancient Romans decorated trees with small pieces of metal during Saturnalia (a winter festival in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture.) and there is also evidence to suggest that December 25th was chosen as the day to celebrate Christ's birth in order to replace some of the pagan holidays. Historians believe the Emperor Constantine did this around the year 390 to combine Christmas with the Saturn and Mithras celebrations and also with the cult of Sol Invictus which was a form of Sunday worship that had come to Rome from Syria.
There is also evidence that during the middle ages, an evergreen was decorated with apples and called the Paradise tree, as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve and was held on December 24th each year.
The modern Christmas trees appeared somewhere in the middle 1500's in or near Strasbourg Germany and the oldest record of a decorated Christmas tree came from a 1605 diary found in Strasburg. The tree was decorated with paper roses, apples and candies.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, we know that the tops of evergreens were cut and hung upside down in a living room corner and the trees were used as a symbol for the Trinity and they were sometimes decorated with apples, nuts and strips of red paper.
Tinsel was invented in Germany around 1610 using real silver. It was very durable, but tarnished quickly, especially with candlelight used at that time. Other materials were used but never caught on because of the weight.
The oldest record of Christmas trees in America was for children in the German Moravian Church's settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas 1747. They used wooden pyramids covered with evergreen branches and decorated them with candles.
The custom of the Christmas tree was introduced in the United States during the War of Independence by Hessian troops and there is an early account of a Christmas tree set up by American soldiers at Fort Dearborn, Illinois, the site of Chicago, in 1804. Most other early accounts in the United States were among the German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania and it is known that the Pennsylvanian German settlements had community trees as early as 1747.
Decorations were mainly home-made by young Ladies quilting snowflakes and stars, sewing little pouches for secret gifts and paper baskets with sugared almonds in them. Small bead decorations, silver tinsel from Germany and Angels to sit at the top of the tree were also popular. Candles were often placed into wooden hoops for safety.
Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1842.
Somewhere around 1846 - 48, Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was credited with bringing the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal Family but some historians state that Queen Charlotte, Victoria's grandmother, had a Christmas tree in the Queen's lodge at Windsor on Christmas Day in 1800. We do know that in the Illustrated London News in 1846, an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince, Albert and their children around a Christmas tree appeared and the Christmas tree became very fashionable because of the Royal Family.
It became a custom to have several small trees on tables, one for each member of the family, with those persons gifts stacked on the table under the tree.
Early in America’s history, Christmas trees were considered a quaint foreign custom and with the diversity in America there were only pockets' of immigrants using them. It was not until the telegraph communications really got going in the 19th century, that such customs began to spread and references to decorated trees in America before about the middle of the 19th century are very rare.
Companies in Germany seized the opportunity and began making fancy shaped glass bead garlands and other decorations for the trees.
Mark Carr brought trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York in 1851, and opened the first retail Christmas tree lot in the United States and Franklin Pierce was the first president to introduce the Christmas tree to the White House in 1856.
By the 1870's, Glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Germany and it became a status symbol to have glass ornaments on the tree; the more one had the better ones status!
The glass ornaments started being imported into America around 1880, where they were sold through stores such as FW Woolworth. They were quickly followed by American patents for electric lights (1882), (until this time candles were attached to tree branches - which resulted in a lot of fires!) and metal hooks for safer hanging of decorations onto the trees (1892).
The artificial Christmas tree was invented in the 1880's in Germany, to combat some of the damage being done by so many native Fir trees being chopped for Christmas.
The first national American Christmas Tree was lighted in the year 1923 on the White House lawn by President Calvin Coolidge and a tree from the National Christmas Tree Association has been displayed in the Blue Room of the White House since 1966. See Christmas Trees at the White House.
Christmas trees declined in popularity during the depression but after World War II, the Christmas tree again became popular!
The mid-1960's saw another change. Sammy Davis Jr and the Mod 60's were booming and plastic was everywhere. Silver aluminum trees became popular and the 'Silver Pine' tree, patented in the 1950's, was designed to have a revolving light source under it, with colored gelatin 'windows, which allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree. No decorations were needed for this tree.
In the 1980's Christopher Radko brought back the old art of making glass ornaments for all to enjoy and many of these replicated some of the very old ornaments made in Germany.
Info from the following sites:
The Christmas Archives: Chronological History of the Christmas Tree
The History of the Christmas Tree and Other Christmas traditions