A Christmas tree is a decorated tree, usually an evergreen conifer such as spruce, pine or fir, traditionally associated with the celebration of Christmas. An artificial Christmas tree is an object made to resemble such a tree, usually made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
The tree was traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts or dates. In the 18th century, it began to be illuminated by candles, which with electrification could also be replaced by Christmas lights. Today, there are a wide variety of traditional ornaments, such as garland, tinsel, and candy canes. An angel or star may be placed at the top of the tree to represent the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
The custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly the 15th century, in which “devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes”. It acquired popularity beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century. The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree”, especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.
While it is clear that the modern Christmas tree originates in Renaissance and early modern Germany, there are a number of speculative theories as to its ultimate origin. Its 16th-century origins are sometimes associated with Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther who, according to the TV channel History, “first added lighted candles to a tree.”
It is frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak (though the oak tree is obviously not an evergreen (could be a Holm Oak (Quercus ilex ) and the popularized story of Saint Boniface and the conversion of the German pagans.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
There was an old pagan custom of suspending at the ceiling a branch of fir, spruce or pine called Podłaźniczka associated with Koliada. The branches were decorated with apples, nuts, cookies, colored paper, stars made of straw, ribbons and colored wafers. People believed in the tree magical powers linked with harvesting and success in the next year.
Estonia and Latvia
Customs of erecting decorated trees in wintertime can be traced to Christmas celebrations in Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany and Livonia. The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guildhalls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Latvia and Estonia), in 1441, 1442, 1510 and 1514, theBrotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Riga and Reval (now Tallinn). On the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square where the members of the brotherhood danced around it. A Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 reports that a small tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers” was erected in the guild-house for the benefit of the guild members’ children, who collected the dainties on Christmas Day. In 1584, the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow in his Chronica der Provinz Lyfflandt (1584) wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”.
After the Protestant Reformation, such trees are seen in the houses of upper-class Protestant families as a counterpart to the Catholic Christmas cribs. This transition from the guild hall to the bourgeois family homes in the Protestant parts of Germany ultimately gives rise to the modern tradition as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Along the lower Rhine, an area of Roman Catholic majority, the Christmas tree was largely regarded as a Protestant custom. As a result, it remained confined to the upper Rhineland for a relatively long period of time. The custom did eventually gain wider acceptance, beginning around 1815, by way of Prussian officials who emigrated there following the Congress of Vienna.
A decisive factor in winning general popularity was the German army’s decision to place Christmas trees in its barracks and military hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War. Only at the start of the 20th century did Christmas trees appear inside churches, this time in a new brightly lit form.
Adoption by European nobility
In the early 19th century, the custom became popular among the nobility and spread to royal courts as far as Russia. Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg introduced the Christmas tree to Vienna in 1816, and the custom spread across Austria in the following years. InFrance, the first Christmas tree was introduced in 1840 by the duchesse d’Orléans. In Denmark a Danish newspaper claims that the first attested Christmas tree was lit in 1808 by countess Wilhemine of Holsteinborg. It was the aging countess who told the story of the first Danish Christmas tree to the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen in 1865. He had published a fairy-tale called The Fir-Tree in 1844, recounting the fate of a fir-tree being used as a Christmas tree.
Although the tradition of decorating the home with evergreens was long established, the custom of decorating an entire small tree was unknown in Britain until some two centuries ago. At the time of the personal union with Hanover, George III‘s German-born queen,Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced a Christmas tree at a party she gave for children in 1800. The custom did not at first spread much beyond the royal family. Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with it and a tree was placed in her room every Christmas. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote:
“After dinner… we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…”
After Victoria’s marriage to her German cousin Prince Albert, by 1841 the custom became even more widespread as wealthier middle-class families followed the fashion. In 1842 a newspaper advert for Christmas trees makes clear their smart cachet, German origins and association with children and gift-giving. An illustrated book, The Christmas Tree, describing their use and origins in detail, was on sale in December 1844. In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be”. A boost to the trend was given in 1848 when The Illustrated London News, in a report picked up by other papers, described the trees in Windsor Castle in detail and showed the main tree, surrounded by the royal family, on its cover. In fewer than ten years their use in better-off homes was widespread. By 1856 a northern provincial newspaper contained an advert alluding casually to them, as well as reporting the accidental death of a woman whose dress caught fire as she lit the tapers on a Christmas tree. They had not yet spread down the social scale though, as a report from Berlin in 1858 contrasts the situation there where “Every family has its own” with that of Britain, where Christmas trees were still the preserve of the wealthy or the “romantic”.
Their use at public entertainments, charity bazaars and in hospitals made them increasingly familiar however, and in 1906 a charity was set up specifically to ensure even poor children in London slums ‘who had never seen a Christmas tree’ would enjoy one that year. Anti-German sentiment after World War I briefly reduced their popularity but the effect was short-lived and by the mid-1920s the use of Christmas trees had spread to all classes. In 1933 a restriction on the importation of foreign trees led to the ‘rapid growth of a new industry’ as the growing of Christmas trees within Britain became commercially viable due to the size of demand. By 2013 the number of trees grown in Britain for the Christmas market was approximately 8 million and their display in homes, shops and public spaces a normal part of the Christmas season.
The tradition was introduced to Canada in the winter of 1781 by Brunswick soldiers stationed in the Province of Quebec to garrison the colony against American attack. General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel, held a Christmas party at Sorel, delighting their guests with a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.
A woodcut of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, initially published in The Illustrated London News December 1848, was copied in the United States at Christmas 1850, in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Godey’s copied it exactly, except for the removal of the Queen’s tiara and Prince Albert’s moustache, to remake the engraving into an American scene. The republished Godey’s image became the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America. Art historian Karal Ann Marling called Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, shorn of their royal trappings, “the first influential American Christmas tree”. Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, “In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850–60 than Godey’s Lady’s Book“. The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.
Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country’s first Christmas tree: Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, while the “First Christmas Tree in America” is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816. In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821, leading Lancaster to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Other accounts credit Charles Follen, a German immigrant to Boston, for being the first to introduce to America the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, is the first to popularise the practice of decorating a tree with candy canes. In 1847, Imgard cut a blue spruce tree from a woods outside town, had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments and candy canes. German immigrant Charles Minnegerode accepted a position as a professor of humanities at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1842, where he taught Latin and Greek. Entering into the social life of the Virginia Tidewater, Minnigerode introduced the German custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas at the home of law professor St. George Tucker, thereby becoming another of many influences that prompted Americans to adopt the practice at about that time.
The lyrics sung in the United States to the German tune O Tannenbaum begin “O Christmas tree”, giving rise to the mistaken idea that the German word Tannenbaum (fir tree) means “Christmas tree”, the German word for which is instead Weihnachtsbaum.
1918 to present
In Russia, the Christmas tree was banned shortly after the October Revolution but then reinstated as a New-year spruce in 1935. It became a fully secular icon of the New Year holiday, for example, the crowning star was regarded not as a symbol of Bethlehem Star, but as the Red Star. Decorations, such as figurines of airplanes, bicycles, space rockets, cosmonauts, and characters of Russian fairy tales, were produced. This tradition persists after the fall of the USSR, with the New Year holiday outweighing the Christmas for a wide majority of Russian people.
The TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) was influential on the pop culture surrounding the Christmas tree. Aluminum Christmas treeswere popular during the early 1960s in the US. They were satirized in the Charlie Brown show and came to be seen as symbolizing the commercialization of Christmas. The term Charlie Brown Christmas tree, describing any poor-looking or malformed little tree, also derives from the 1965 TV special, based on the appearance of Charlie Brown‘s Christmas tree.