Christmas Trees: History and Myth

What could be more traditional than the Christmas tree? And wouldn’t it be great if the tradition went back to ancient times? Or at least wouldn’t it be great if the Christmas tree evolved from pre-Christian traditions, in some sort of spiritual communion with all peoples from all times? 

Well, just from the way we set up the introduction you know that there’s no evidence for any of that, despite what many people think and believe. Given how old Christmas observations are, the Christmas tree tradition itself isn’t that old. And certainly modern Christmas tree practices, like those we see in the United States, for instance, are newer still.

How far back does the Christmas tree go?

The use of evergreen branches, wreaths, and small trees for celebration, and even as symbols of eternal life, is indeed an ancient custom. Egyptians, ancient Hebrews, and Chinese cultures used them in these symbolic ways. And tree worship, or using trees as religious decoration in general, was not uncommon in pre-Christian Europe.

The most common thing you’ll hear is that the use of Christmas trees goes back to Germany in the middle ages (AD 500 to 1450). But here’s the Buzzkill mantra that you’ve gotten used to by now — there’s no evidence that “Christmas Trees” go back that far.

Although there may be some slight connection with “paradise trees,” which were a prop used in religious plays and were sometimes hung with apples (to symbolize Adam and Eve), there is no direct evidence of a link. (Despite the fact that apples hanging on a tree are not that dissimilar to round ornaments that were eventually hung on Christmas trees.)

The first direct evidence of Christmas trees appearing in Europe was indeed in the region of Latvia, Estonia, and modern-day Germany. Prominent guilds in Latvia and Estonia decorated trees with sweets and presents for the guild apprentices and their children.

In 1561, a law in Alsace forbade anyone from having a “Christmas bush” more than, roughly, eight feet in length. It’s not clear why there was such a prohibition, but some historians have speculated that it may indicate that evergreen boughs, bushes, or even trees were brought indoors by people. They may have been a fire hazard, and the local authorities might have been worried that large evergreens would have been even more of a fire hazard than small boughs. The thing was, if a fire started in one dwelling, it could quickly spread to adjoining houses because they were built very close together in towns. 

But again, it’s difficult to pin that date and that law down as the beginning of the Christmas tree tradition.

Roughly fifty years later, in 1601, we find the first description of what we would recognize as a Christmas tree. Again, this came from Alsace, although it’s difficult to determine the specific author of this historical snippet. “At Christmas they set up fir-trees in the parlors of Strasbourg and hang roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.”

The practice of decorating trees during Christmas gradually spread in the western German region of the Rhineland and Strasbourg (which is now in France). For the most part, only upper-class families brought trees into the house and decorated them. It was difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. During and after the Reformation, the Christmas tree began to be associated with Protestant households, rather than German Catholics, who usually decorated their houses with Christmas Cribs (which were nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus). 

This difference in religious practices meant that Christmas trees were mostly found in northern Germany as the centuries rolled on. And it wasn’t even universally popular there. Some Protestant ministers complained that Christmas trees were just decoration and didn’t represent the meaning of Christmas. Here’s a complaint from one minister, “Among other trifles with which the people often occupy the Christmas time more than with God’s word, is also the Christmas or fir tree, which they erect in the house, and hang with dolls and sugar and thereupon shake and cause it to lose its bloom. Where the habit comes from, I know not. It is a bit of child’s play . . . Far better were it for the children to be dedicated to the spiritual cedar tree, Jesus Christ.”

But gradually the practice spread in the 19th century. Royal and noble households started to put up Christmas trees. The German military decorated their barracks and hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), and many soldiers brought the tradition home. This helped the Christmas tree become an expression of German culture. 

Noble households in other parts of Europe started decorating their houses with Christmas trees, starting in the early 19th century. We see them appear in Russia and Austria in the 1810s. The first reference to a Christmas tree in France is from 1840. And the practice spread to Scandinavia in the 1850s and 1860s. Again, though, it was mainly a royal and noble practice. Common homes did not put up Christmas trees.

This brings us to Britain and another big Christmas tree myth. Many people, me included, have always thought that the Christmas tree tradition was brought over to England by Prince Albert, who married Queen Victoria in 1841. Not so fast, Bertie.

Decorating with evergreen boughs (but not an entire tree) had been common in Britain for centuries. But, along with the rest of Europe, British nobility started decorating with Christmas trees by 1800. In fact, Queen Charlotte (George III’s wife), who was from Germany, brought the first Christmas tree to the English royal court in 1800. Charlotte was not only from a German noble family, she was an amateur botanist and loved this sort of thing.

Still, the tradition stayed within the very upper circles of society. Princess Victoria wrote in her journal on Christmas Eve 1832 (five years before she would become Queen), “After dinner… we then went into the drawing-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents [were] placed round the trees…”

Prince Albert did help make the custom more popular in Britain, however. He brought the more elaborate and festive German Christmas tree tradition with him when he came to Britain to marry Princess Victoria. The key event, though, was a lavish spread in the London Illustrated News in December 1848, which not only described the British royal Christmas trees and their decoration in great detail, it showed illustrations of the royal family around their tree in “normal” clothes, as if they were almost middle class enjoying a typical family Christmas.

From here the tradition really kicked off in Britain and spread across Scotland and Ireland through the 1850s and 1860s.

What about these United States, you ask? Despite the fact that I have always told people that the Christmas tree “tradition” was a direct import from Prince Albert, it appears that some Christmas trees appeared as early as 1781 in North America. Mostly, that tradition came from German soldiers who were brought over to Canada to help protect Quebec from American attack during the Revolutionary War. Some heavily Germanic communities in Pennsylvania and New York state also used Christmas trees, although it seems to have been limited to those places.

Still, Prince Albert’s influence was very strong. By the mid-19th century, everyone had more or less forgotten Revolutionary animosities against Great Britain. The famous 1848 Illustrated London News story, including the illustrations, was reprinted in Godey’s Lady Book in December 1850. But Godey’s “American-ized” the royal family by taking Victoria’s crown and Albert’s moustache out of the picture. Godey’s was very popular and influential in crafting American tastes and customs, and the Victorian Christmas scene was republished until the 1870s. By that time, the tradition had become firmly rooted in American soil.

As the Christmas tree tradition developed in the United States, people began to sing, “O Tannenbaum” during the holidays. It was an old German folk tune, but it doesn’t translate to “O Christmas Tree.” “Tannenbaum” means “fir tree” and the song didn’t have any specific Christmas reference until the late 19th century, when changes were added to the second verse so that it said the fir tree was beautiful “at Christmas time.”

From then on, the Christmas tree in America and Europe has gone from triumph to triumph, becoming easily the most recognizable symbol of the Christmas season. Huge Christmas trees in public places became common by the early 20th century. And modern commercialization launched it deeply in the public consciousness.

So, happy holidays, Buzzkillers, and while you’re sipping your egg nog or celebrating the end of the year according to your own religious practices, remember that traditions are almost always more complex, more multi-dimensional, and more multi-cultural than you originally thought.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Karal Ann Marling, Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday

It wouldn’t be Christmas without the “things.” How they came to mean so much, and to play such a prominent role in America’s central holiday, is the tale told in this delightful and edifying book. In a style characteristically engaging and erudite, Karal Ann Marling, one of our most trenchant observers of American culture, describes the outsize spectacle that Christmas has become, showing us the provenance and significance of each of its essential parts: the decorated trees and holiday lights, the cards and gifts and wrapping papers, the toy villages and store displays and Macy’s holiday parade, Bing Crosby and Santa Claus.

Viewing Christmas through the media of mass culture–engravings and lithographs, magazine fiction, pictorial ads, news photos, cards, and movies–Marling tells us how the beloved Christmas tree grew out of a much-reprinted image of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a decorated fir; how Santa Claus lost his provincial Dutch character and turned into the jolly old soul we know; how Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol borrowed from Washington Irving’s imaginings of what Christmas must have been like in Merrie Olde England; and how the holiday, balancing between the private and public realms, conferred a central and defining role on women.

A celebration of the visual culture of the season, Merry Christmas! offers captivating evidence that Christmas in America is primarily a secular celebration of abundance, goodwill, and familial identity, expressed in a multitude of material ways.

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