When it comes to Christmas traditions, there’s a lot of focus on advertising, gift-giving and spending cash. In fact, it often seems like contemporary Christmases are more about hard work and planning than celebration.
Yet, despite the many ways in which yuletide customs have changed, we continue to follow some very old practices indeed.
One of the oldest is the use of evergreen fir trees as decoration and symbol of winter. It’s a tradition that stretches back thousands of years to the Roman Empire.
The Romans adorned their temples with fir trees during the festival of Saturnalia.
Much like modern families, the Pagans hung fir branches in their homes to usher in the spring, considering their perpetual greenness as a symbol of regeneration.
Although there’s no clear evidence to demonstrate the earliest use of fir trees as ‘Christmas trees,’ it’s likely the tradition began around 1,000 years ago in northern Europe.
Some households appear to have hung fir trees upside down from their roofs, in an inversion of the traditions we’re used to today.
In some regions of Europe, ‘Christmas trees’ were smaller and more compact. Instead of a towering fir tree, poorer households might use a hawthorn plant or hang a single fir branch from the ceiling.
How Xmas Trees Came into Existence
There is evidence to suggest some poorer families stacked pieces of wood together to form makeshift Christmas trees.
They would build a pyramid shape, with a pointy top, out of scrap timber and use paper, apples, and candles to decorate it.
Though historians think these makeshift trees may also have served as Paradise Trees – props in the dramatic performances or ‘Miracle Plays’ acted out on Christmas Eve.
These yuletide plays were a way to bring religious stories to the masses at Christmas, a time when they were particularly receptive to messages about generosity, goodwill, and forgiveness.
As many poorer people couldn’t read, the wooden trees were a handy way to advertise performances and let villagers know to expect them.
Let’s not forget the fact trees are a very potent religious symbol. In plays held on Christmas Eve or Adam and Eve’s Day, they were a representation of the Garden of Eden.
Evidence of Christmas Trees
To find the first written evidence of Christmas trees, we need to go back to 1441. Or 1510, depending on which historian you believe.
There is still dispute over whether Tallinn, in Estonia, lays claim to the first Christmas tree or whether it’s actually Riga, in Latvia.
Documentary evidence shows both cities claim to have invented the Christmas tree. Interestingly, the people responsible were probably the same in both cases.
The Brotherhood of Blackheads, a group of unmarried seafarers, traders and foreigners, are thought to have erected trees in town squares.
We don’t have a lot of information about these events. However, it’s likely the trees were danced around and then set on fire as part of Christmas celebrations.
It should be noted we don’t know if these ‘trees’ were trees as we’d expect. They may have been large wooden masts or bigger versions of the timber filled Paradise Trees used on Adam and Eve’s Day.
This may be where our fascination with the fir tree, in particular, and its zig -being pulled through the streets of a German town.
The man riding behind it is thought to represent St. Nicholas. In 1584, the historian Balthasar Russow described a Latvian custom of decorating fir trees, erecting them in town squares and setting them alight.
The tree would be set on fire after many hours of merriment, dancing, and japery.
Christmas tree in modern times
The earliest incarnation of our modern Christmas tree traditions is associated with Martin Luther, a German monk and prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation. Legend says, in the 16th century,
Luther was wandering through the woods just before Christmas. He was so enamored with the way the starlight bounced through the trees, he ran home and told his family it was surely a sign from Jesus.
He took it as proof Jesus had left the heavens to visit earth at Christmastime.
This story is often used as the first evidence of Christmas trees but, of course, the occurrences in Latvia predate it.
If both are true, it’s possible the new tradition traveled from Latvia to Germany with migrant workers.
We do know, in 1605, an anonymous scribe wrote of “Christmas trees in Strasbourg [hung] with roses cut from colored papers, apples, wafers, gold foils, sweets, etc.”
It’s likely the first use of Christmas tree baubles dates back to the German tradition of decorating with glass trinkets.
It may be where the custom of placing a star on the top of a Christmas tree originates. In the 16th century, the symbol at the top of a tree was usually Jesus.
Over time, it changed to become an angel or star, symbolic of the signs used to lead the Three Wise Men to Jesus’ stable on Christmas Day.
In yet another origin story, St. Boniface of Devon (in England) is said to have sailed to Germany to convert pagans to Christianity.
He stumbled upon a group of men preparing to sacrifice a child as part of a paganistic ceremony in the woods.
Furious at what he saw, Boniface sprang into action and felled the oak tree in which the pagans were dancing around.
Remarkably, a fir tree sapling then appeared in its place and the pagans were convinced.
Each night, they returned to the woods to adorn the new tree with decorations and listen to Boniface telling stories about Jesus Christ.
It’s interesting to note that Germany, like Latvia, has a lot of Christmas tree stories and legends. Another tale says a poor forester and his family heard a knock at the door on Christmas Eve.
When they opened it, they found a cold and frightened young boy. The family ushered him inside, gave him a bath and some food and tucked him into a warm bed.
In the morning, on Christmas Day, the family was roused from sleep by a chorus of angelic voices.
The child was a manifestation of Jesus Christ and, for their generosity, he gifted the family with a blessed branch of a fir tree.
Legend says, ever since, families have been decorating trees at Christmas to commemorate the story.
The use of Christmas trees isn’t seen in England until much later in the 19th century.
They became a fashionable tradition after Prince Albert had a Christmas tree brought over from Germany and erected in Windsor Castle.
This was in 1841 and, in 1848, we see a detailed illustration of the tree appear in Godey’s Lady Book, an American publication.
The Christmas scene at Windsor was celebrated as an interesting new tradition but, amusingly, Albert and Queen Victoria were ‘edited’ to appear as a wealthy American couple.
This illustration brought the concept of Christmas trees to America and it wasn’t long before the tradition was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tinsel and the Legend of the Christmas Spider
We have a reasonable idea about where the first Christmas trees came from, even though there’s no definitive country of origin.
Where did our decorating customs originate? Who invented tinsel and why is it so popular at Christmas? To find out, we have to return to Germany.
Tinsel is believed to have been invented in Germany. The earliest versions were made from extremely thin pieces of flattened metal.
The problem is, this was expensive. Soon, plastic would replace the metal because it was cheap, lightweight and easy to mass-produce.
There are some interesting folk stories about the invention of tinsel, only some of which originate in Germany.
The tale of the Christmas Spider is probably the most well-known. There are versions of it across Europe in Finnish, Polish, Scandinavian and Ukrainian cultures.
All of these cultures tell a tale of an impoverished family who has a Christmas tree but no decorations to beautify it with.
They wake up on Christmas Day morning to a miracle – a sympathetic spider has covered the tree in glistening cobwebs.
They sparkle brightly in silver and gold much like modern tinsels. In some versions of the story, the spider wraps the tree in cobwebs, but it is St. Nicholas who comes along and turns them into sparkling decorations.
For this reason, many families in Poland and Germany believe it’s a lucky omen to find a spider on the Christmas tree.
In a sweet celebration of the story, some Ukrainian families still decorate their trees with ‘pavuchky’ (little spiders) made out of wire and colored paper.
Christmas Tree Lights
We know where the earliest Christmas trees come from. We know where the tradition of decorating with tinsels originates.
When did the habit of stringing colored lights from the Christmas tree become popular?
As with other yuletide traditions, the answer is disputed. Some believe the trend was popularized by American inventor Thomas Edison. In 1880, shortly after the invention of the electric bulb, he decorated his office with colored lights.
Two years later, a friend and co-worker of Edison’s would replicate this at home by stringing eighty small bulbs around his Christmas tree.
The year 1890 saw the publication of an Edison Company pamphlet advertising electric lighting for Christmas. By 1900, the company was promoting rentable electric bulbs which customers could set up themselves.
It’s important to consider who could afford to invest in such a novelty at this time.
While it’s true Edison brought the concept of electric lighting as decoration into the public consciousness, only a few wealthy families could buy it.
Some reports suggest it cost as much as $300 to rent these Edison Christmas lights.
It equates to around $2000 in today’s money, so it was an option only for rich households.
According to historians, the first genuinely commercial (and widely accessible) use of Christmas tree lights is seen in 1903. Electric bulbs for Christmas were sold at a cost of $12 per 24 bulbs; a much cheaper offer than Edison’s earlier versions.
Though still pricey and probably out of reach of working-class families, they started popping up in a lot more households after this time.
In 1908, we see one of the earliest incarnations of the modern string light. Ralph Morris, a switchboard operator, linked a sequence of electric bulbs with telephone wire.
He then used this rudimentary string light to decorate his Christmas tree.
The story says he took his bulbs from the blinking panels of switchboard exchanges and this is why Christmas lights later became elongated with a rounded end.
In an amusing twist to the tale, Morris’ father wrote to the Christian Science Monitor to announce his son had invented Christmas tree lights.
What he didn’t know was Edison was already credited with the discovery all the way back in 1800.
It’s lucky the invention of safe electric lighting for Christmas trees did come along. For a long time, people decorated their trees with wax candles, having no other practical way to adorn the branches with light.
You can probably see why this was a problem. In 1885, a medical facility in Chicago was set alight by the live flames on a festive tree.
It wasn’t the first time it had happened, and it raised some awareness of the dangers.
Although, it would be years before most households switched to electric bulbs.
The problems caused by the marriage of Christmas trees and candles gave some plucky entrepreneurs ideas.
In 1917, a young immigrant in New York named Albert Sadacca used his family’s popular wicker bird models to create safe Christmas lights.
He took small bulbs from the model’s cages and linked them with long strings. He also tried painting the bulbs in festive colors to increase their appeal.
Eventually, Sadacca and his brothers would launch the legendary NOMA Electric Company, a business that would become famous for its Christmas lights.
Christmas Tree Fun Facts
Where there are Christmas trees, there is competition. Over the years, many people have attempted to create the biggest, brightest and most astounding decorations.
For instance, in 2010, a record for the most lights on a single Christmas tree was set. The total is 194,672 lights on a tree in Belgium.
In 2008, American lumberjack Erin Lavoie cut down 27 Christmas trees in two minutes to establish a new world record.
The record for the tallest tree in history goes to the Peace Tree at Moinhos de Vento Park, in Brazil.
It was a staggering 52 meters in height and stood on display from December 1st to Twelfth Night on January 5th.
To make this possible, the leaves were made out of green plastic.
It’s a compelling example of how potent the symbol of the Christmas tree has become.
Culturally, it’s a totem for peace and prosperity. In many countries, there are individually recognizable Christmas trees with national significance.
One of the best examples is the tree which stands in Trafalgar Square every December.
It shines brightly in a bustling part of London to symbolize the goodwill and kindness we’re all capable of showing one another at Christmas.
Learn More With the Help of Video
Main Points About History of Christmas Trees
- Traditionally, fir trees were used by pagans and Christians alike as a symbol and as a decorative tool.
- The Christmas tree is a tree, usually an evergreen fir or artificial tree decorated for the Christmas celebration.
- Historians have traced the origin of the Christmas tree to the pagan tradition. For many Winter celebrations, the Egyptians and Romans used evergreen plants.
- When Christianity came, a lot of pagan traditions were transferred into Christian practice.
- The practice of the use of modern trees was first recorded in the 16th century when the German Christians would bring trees into their homes during Christmas and decorate them.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About History of Christmas Trees
The tradition of having a Xmas tree in the home and decorating it before Christmas is the traditional way to bring in the spirit of Christmas to homes.
People across countries bring Christmas trees. Even the countries where Christianity is not the first religion, people do buy Christmas trees from the market. Without a Christmas tree, the decorations are never complete.
Word Cloud for History of Christmas Trees
The following is a collection of the most used terms in this article on the History of Christmas Trees. This should help in recalling related terms as used in this article at a later stage for you.
Table of Contents