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The expression "trim the tree" in the context of Christmas means "decorate the tree." It seems an odd verb to use, since "trim" usually means to take material away rather than add it. Also, since "trim" is so common a word it is hard to find much information using Google.

So what is the origin and derivation of this festive expression?

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  • See lexico.com/en/definition/trimming.
    – Xanne
    Commented Dec 7, 2021 at 23:47
  • @YosefBaskin, when you trim a tree are you adding trimmings? Or is it that trimmings must be added to make the tree trim (like a sail is trimmed by being in the correct position)?
    – Juhasz
    Commented Dec 7, 2021 at 23:57
  • @Juhasz I believe that "trimming the tree" is the action of adding trimming material. However I suspect that the origin of "trimmings' meaning decorations is derived from a more ancient practice of using off-cuts of cloth (trimmings, items which are trimmed off) to decorate everything from clothing to houses. Also, possibly, the use of trimmings of trees to decorate houses .
    – BoldBen
    Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 1:13
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    Here, let me etymonline that for you. The origins of "trim" simply have to do with preparing and making ready. It just so happens that a cut of meat needs material removed to be ready, and a tree needs material added. By the way, as a relative newcomer I shouldn't presume to explain to you the way things work, but it is nice to look things up before posting, and there are more relevant tools than Google. Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 1:34
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    Bonnets were trimmed. Dresses were trimmed. Thanksgiving dinner is served with "all the trimmings." A word can have two very different meanings. Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 7:21

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Trim the tree as a set expression actually comes from a second meaning of trim. This second meaning comes from trim's etymological origin.

Blog post from patch.com:

The other day, as I decorated my family Christmas tree, I found myself wondering, “Why do we trim the tree? And why on earth do we call it ‘trimming’?”

Although we do not cut the tree, we do “embellish with or as if with ribbons, lace, or ornaments” – as the [Merriam-Webster] definition for the transitive verb “trim” states. The word “trim,” while we use it interchangeably with “cut,” actually comes from the Middle English verb “trimmen” meaning to put in order, which comes from the Old English word “trymman” or “trymian” meaning to arrange or strengthen.

The podcast A Way With Words agrees, and we can confirm this theory by checking Oxford Languages' etymology for trim as a verb:

Old English trymman, trymian ‘make firm, arrange’, of which the adjective appears to be a derivative. The word's history is obscure; current verb senses date from the early 16th century when usage became frequent and served many purposes: this is possibly explained by spoken or dialect use in the Middle English period not recorded in extant literature.

So, trim the tree comes from one of trim's other meanings, which is 'to arrange'.

(The earliest mention I can find is in Demorest's Young America, supposedly from 1869, in the form of "We strung great strings of holly-berries and made paper flowers to trim the tree.")

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