Roots: The Origins of the Christmas Tree

Roots: The Origins of the Christmas Tree

Anna Hoffman
Dec 10, 2009

Ever wonder what a decorated fir tree has to do with Christmas? Like any folk ritual, the origins of the Christmas tree are difficult to trace, but in various forms, it has been a way of marking the winter solstice for millennia. Let's look at how the Druids, a Saint, and Queen Victoria all have the Christmas tree in common.

The fir tree has always been an important symbol because it is an evergreen, and was prized throughout history as a reminder of the coming spring. In Roman times, pagans celebrated the winter solstice, around December 21st, with the feast of Saturnalia, for which they'd use branches from fir trees as decoration. The Druids and Vikings also saw fir trees as a sacred symbol of life during the bleak Northern European mid-winter.

In the Christian era, legend credits Saint Boniface (image 2) with maintaining the significance of the fir tree. During a sermon delivered to recent converts to Christianity in the 7th century, Boniface chopped down an oak tree — considered divine by pagans — and found a fir tree still standing among its roots, which he then used as a symbol of the miracle of Christ's resurrection. In a variation on that legend, he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to teach pagans about the Trinity (those pagans loved their visual aids!).

The first evidence of decorated Christmas trees is from Central Europe in the 16th century. In Germany, there was a Christmastime market for ornaments. Typically, fir trees or branches would be decorated with apples, paper flowers, shaped gingerbread, wax ornaments, and gilded or candied foods. By the 17th century, decorations in Germany included tinsel (invented in the early 1600s and made out of real silver), candles and silver wire ornaments (image 3). According to another legend, Martin Luther was the first to decorate a branch with candles, in order to recreate for his family the beauty of looking at the starry sky through the trees. (It is also Martin Luther who suggested that children receive presents from the Christ child on Christmas instead of on December 6th, Saint Nicholas' saint's day, December 6th. Oh, and Martin Luther also led the Protestant Reformation &mdash is there anything that guy couldn't do?)

Both Boniface and Martin Luther lived and worked in Germany (though Boniface was originally English), and so it follows that the Christmas tree was mostly a German tradition. German settlers in America brought the Christmas tree to the New World, but it remained somewhat a marginal sub-cultural practice in America and England, where Puritans and other religious reformers forbade the practice as heathen.

This all changed with Queen Victoria. Victoria's grandmother was the German-born Queen Charlotte, and Victoria's childhood memories included a beautifully decorated tree at Christmastime. Victoria's marriage to the German Prince Albert meant that both royals had grown up with the tradition. Their richly ornamented and candlelit tree was illustrated in the Illustrated London News in 1848 (image 1) and then reprinted in a popular American women's magazine. Victoria was a well-loved queen, and her court was responsible for many of the fashions of the time (there's a reason it's called the Victorian era!), and this was no exception. Once the image of the royal Christmas tree went public, homes across England and America began to adopt the tradition for themselves. Christmas trees were first sold commercially in America in 1851, and in 1853, President Franklin Pierce (everyone's favorite US president!) ordered the very first White House Christmas tree. Christmas trees were now fully embraced as a mainstream tradition (images 4 & 5).

This new tree craze, combined with the general love the Victorians had for tchotchkes and knick-knacks of all kinds, meant that decorated Christmas trees were quickly popularized (image 6), laden with small toys, silver and glass ornaments, paper and bead garlands, and even flags (popular among the Empire-building English and the Centennial-celebrating Americans). Many of these ornaments were mass-produced (the Industrial Revolution was in full swing), but ladies and girls spent much of their time leading up to the holidays crafting Christmas decorations, like quilled snowflakes and paper baskets for candied nuts.

In the 20th century, of course, came the advent of electric Christmas lights, along with other modern miracles like dyed popcorn garlands and plastic tinsel. It's interesting to see how tastes in decoration change over the decades — despite being very traditional and formal, the Kennedy- and Reagan-era White House trees show a distinct stylistic difference that fits with the general aesthetic changes from 1961 to 1987 (images 7 & 8).This year, though, it might be time to dial up the Victorian nostalgia. How do you trim your tree, do you keep it modern and minimalist or more Dickensian and romantic?

Images: 1 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their family pictured around their Christmas tree in 1846 in Illustrated London News. This image, adapted and reproduced for a popular American ladies' magazine, was incredibly influential, and launched the decorated tree tradition across England and America. Image from; 2 Illustration of Saint Boniface from the Sacramentary of Fulda, c. 1025, in the Vatican collection, image from Wikimedia Commons; 3 A German print by Josef Kelbner from 1800 showing a decorated tree from that era, image from; 4 Victoria and Albert's Christmas tree in 1851, painted by William Corden the Younger, in the Royal Collection, image from; 5 The cover of Harper's Weekly from December 29th, 1861, showing the Christmas tree among the features of an American Christmas celebration. Image from Philip V. Allingham on Victorian Web; 6 A 19th-century Christmas card in the collection of (appropriately) the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 7 The Christmas tree at the Kennedy White House, 1961, Wikimedia Commons; 8 The Christmas tree at the Reagan White House, 1987, Apartment Therapy DC.

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