In years gone by our family’s Christmas tree would be bought, put up and decorated on Christmas Eve. There would be a near panic dash around the local area looking for a suitable tree amongst those that were still available. It would then be rushed back to the house and quickly raised before the lights, tinsel and hundreds of decorations, that have been collected or handed down through the years, could be hung from the branches. More recently, perhaps encouraged by society’s general move to starting the Christmas celebrations earlier and earlier, or perhaps just because we are now more organised, our family tree has been bought and decorated much earlier in advance. Of course the fact that most trees don’t drop their needles as easily now makes a big difference. If we put it up this early in the past the tree would have been naked before Christmas day itself!
Christmas tree can be found all over the place in the western world around Christmas time. Homes, town centres, city squares, care homes, restaurants, hotels…
…But what is the story of the Christmas Tree? Why did we start bringing trees into our homes and decorating them? Who was responsible for the idea?
The ‘pre-modern’ origins of the Christmas tree are disputed, with various pagan, Roman and other pre-modern stories abounding. Tallinn in Estonia (1441) and Riga in Latvia (1510) both claim to be host to the first ‘Christmas tree’, both trees being erected by the ‘Brotherhood of Blackheads’, an association of unmarried merchants, foreigners and ship owners in the Livonia region. The trees would have been erected in the town squares for people to dance around. However, little more than that is known.
Another story comes from St Boniface, who is said to have travelled to Germany from England to preach to pagans there. He is said to have come across a group trying to sacrifice a young boy while worshiping an oak tree. St Boniface cut the tree down and apparently a fir-tree grew in its place which Boniface took as a sign of the Christian faith.
The origins of the modern tree, are slightly clearer, and its origins can be traced back to early modern Germany in the 16th century. We can use records from the guildhalls of northern Germany to understand the practices of the time. In Bremen in 1570 a chronicle reported that a small tree was decorated with ‘apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers’ (ref).
Christmas trees were a common sight in the Upper Rhineland region in the 18th Century but as a practice it was largely regarded as a Protestant custom and so did not spread to the Catholic areas.
In the 19th Century the custom spread around the Royal courts of Europe, including Russia, France, Austria and Denmark.
Christmas trees arrived in Britain when the wife of George III, Charlotte displayed a tree at a party held for children in 1800. Queen Victoria grew up with a tree in her room at Christmas time as well as trees in most other rooms at the Palace. It was due to Victoria’s favour for Christmas trees that they became widespread in Britain, especially after her marriage to German born Albert. In 1841 they erected one in Windsor Castle. Always keen to follow royal fashion the upper and middle classes took a particular fondness to Christmas trees and they spread their influence across the country.
By the 1920s Christmas trees were popular amongst all social classes in Britain.
Today, millions of trees are sold across Europe and North America.
For more info, watch this little film: