The History of the Christmas Tree
There has been a great deal of controversy over the history of the Christmas tree. Some scholars contend that it is primarily a 16th Century German tradition, while others claim that it extends back to pagan times.
According to some legends, the Christmas tree actually has its beginnings in Northern Europe nearly a thousand years ago, when the pagans practiced a yule tradition that involved animal and human sacrifice.
As the story goes, St. Boniface happened upon a group of pagans who were worshipping an oak tree (and persumably conducting sacrifices there). Angered, he cut down the oak, and in its place, a fir tree sprung up. Boniface and the pagans saw this as a sign of the power of the Christian religion.
A less miracluous version says that Boniface used the triangular fir trees to teach the pagans the idea of the holy trinity.
During the Middle Ages, Christians were drawn to the idea of plants and trees proclaiming the miracle of Christmas by flowering in the winter. But evergreen firs do not seem to have played a part in this.
The earliest references to a Christmas Tree come from the traditions of 16th century German craft guilds. In one early reference, a small fir tree was decorated with treats, and set up in the guildhall. Children of the guild members were then invited to take the treats on Christmas Day. A document from 1597 suggests that apprentices carried a decorated tree around town.
In both of these accounts, the tree in question is a fir, so it’s clear that the evergreen had some symbolic significance.
Certainly ancient man was fascinated by evergreen plants. In many cultures, evergreen plants, such the fir and the holly bush, have represented the continuation and renewal of life. In ancient Egypt, for example, green palm fronds represented the triumph over death of the Sun God Ra.
The Romans used evergreens to mark the solstice. During the feast called Saturnalia, the Romans decorated their homes with evergreen plants. The tradition was supposed to remind them that winter soon would be over, and that Saturn, the God of Agriculture, would return to the fields and orchards. Roman mosaics have shown the God Dionysus — another God representing rebirth — carrying a connifer.
The ancient Germans and Scandinavians also attributed special significance to the evergreen tree: they were supposed to be the special plant of the much beloved god Baldur.
Given this, and the Boniface story, its not surprising that evergreens figured in German traditions.
Another German tradition holds that the ritual of putting lights on trees — candles — comes from protestant reformer Martin Luther. Luther, it is said, was walking home one evening when he was struck by the beauty of the stars among the evergreens. Intent on recapturing that remarkable moment, he brought a tree into his house, and attached candles to it.
Sometime during the 17th Century, the trees were moved from the Guildhall to the family home. There, they were decorated with apples, nuts, dates, paper flowers and candles. The trees became so popular that at least one priest complained that the idea was distracting from the Word of God.
Still, the custom was confined to the towns of the upper Rhineland until the late 1700s or early 1800s. Greater Germany in those days was composed of dozens of tiny principalities, and there seems to have been an excess of German princesses available to marry the nobility of other nations. As the princesses traveled to other nations, they took their Christmas traditions with them. Britain’s Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz brought the tradition to England in 1761; Princess Henrietta von Nassau-Weilburg brought the Christmas Tree to Vienna in 1816.
In the United States, the Christmas Tree tradition could be found among German immigrants, but seldom elsewhere. Indeed, in many places, they were seen as pagan symbols — something that would not be welcome in Puritan influenced America.
Indeed, the Puritans had already tried to stamp out many of the celebratory aspects of Christmas. Massachusetts governor William Bradford had tried to lead the Pilgrims in stamping out “pagan mockery,” while in England, Oliver Cromwell had banned carols, decorated trees and joyful expressions.”
In fact, it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria that the idea of the Christmas Tree took hold in the English speaking nations.
Victoria and her German prince, Albert (Victoria also was German) brought to the royal household the German Christmas tree tradition. And when the royal family was pictured decorating a tree in 1846 in the popular Illustrated London News, it very quickly became a fad.
Victoria also was widely admired in the United States — particularly among the fashionable east coast set — and so the custom also was picked up in the United States. What once was seen as idolatry, now became a fun family tradition.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that the United States had a sizable German population. Germans, in fact, were, and are the single largest US ethnic group.
The commercial Christmas tree market was started in 1851 when a Catskill farmer named Mark Carr brought two oxsleds full of Christmas trees to New York City for sale. They sold quickly and a new industry was born.
In 1856, Franklin Pierce brought the first Christmas tree into the White House, a tradition which is echoed today in the Official White House Christmas Tree.
During this time, the Christmas Tree in America still was decorated in the traditional German style, with gifts, candles, fruits, nuts, lace and quilted toys — and an American addition, the popcorn string.
But the traditional style was on its way out. The toys were moved to under the tree. Glass ornaments were coming into style in Germany, and by the 1870s were imported to grace the tree of the British royal family.
In the United States, a patent for electric Christmas lights was issued in 1882. Edward Johnson, the vice president of Edison Electric had strung together 80 red, white and blue bulbs.
Woolworth’s began to import glass ornaments from Germany in 1890. They soon became the most profitable thing that Woolworth sold.
Metal hooks for hanging the ornaments were patented in 1892.
Large scale Christmas tree farming began in the 1930s. With the depression, people were unable to afford to buy trees for landscaping, so enterprising tree farmers began selling their stock as Christmas trees.
During the World War II, the United States was cut off from the supply of German ornaments, so the Corning Glass Company began using its light bulb machines to make ornaments.
Following the Second World War, plastic ornaments were introduced on a large scale.
The 1960s saw the advent of the aluminum tree. Designed with built-in colored lighting, the tree needed no decorations.
But the impulse to modernize did not last for long, as people turned back to real trees, and artificial trees that looked increasingly lifelike.
Recent years have seen a boom in Christmas tree decorations, as Christmas decorating has become a billion-dollar business.