Christmas trees have become as commonplace a Christmas tradition as carving up the turkey and opening presents on Christmas Day. We look back through the history of Christmas trees and discover some surprising origins and a few treats along the way.
Christmas is a Christian festival which celebrates the birth of Jesus and has been celebrated during the winter months for at least a thousand years. Before the rise of the Church it is uncertain whether Christmas as a festival was celebrated in any meaningful way and it was likely marked along with other Christian and Jewish festivals on the early Christian calendar.
The early Christian church earmarked Christmas to be celebrated during December as this fell in line with a major Roman festival at the time called Saturnalia. This was a festival that celebrated the Roman god Saturn. This is why you may have heard that Christmas is a pagan festival, the truth is it was a Roman festival that was repurposed by the Christian church to celebrate the birth of Jesus which no one knew the exact date of.
So, the 25th of December which fell outside of the original Saturnalia (which ended on the 23rd) became the day the church decided was Jesus’ birthday. This of course, tells us about the origins of Christmas itself, but what of the Christmas tree?
The first use of a tree at Christmas
There are two lines of thought here. The first being that trees were used during pagan festivals that preceded even Saturnalia and the second being a more recent origin.
The pagan theory holds weight in that although not specifically purposed as a “Christmas tree”, trees and plants have been used in many pagan festivals and those that were celebrated at the time of the winter solstice (same time as Christmas) also used trees in some celebrations.
For the actual celebration of Christmas itself, Christmas trees are a more recent invention. The earliest recording of a Christmas tree is found on a sculpture from Germany just after the middle ages and during the renaissance period in the 15th and 16th centuries. The sculpture is dated to 1576.
The German origin of Christmas trees
It is relatively unknown why the Germans started cutting down trees and bringing them into their houses. Many speculate that the tradition is older and derives from the non-Christmas pagan origins mentioned above and survived unnoticed in the feudal German times.
It is quite likely that some local tradition preceded the Christmas tradition as the whole notion of Christmas trees outside of ritual in contemporary society is unusual to say the least. In other words, it is a very odd thing to try and put something large from the outside – inside.
It is worth noting that both the Vikings and Saxon peoples worshipped trees and it is not far-fetched that they would have passed on these traditions to the Germanic people that were heavily influenced by them. The older Germanic tribes also had little recorded history of their own and the Romans were very keen to paint them as unintelligent barbaric people which would account for very little surviving historically of their customs.
The Christmas tree tradition flourished in Germany
From the 16th century onwards, the use of Christmas trees in Germany really took root and between that time and the introduction of them into wider European culture and British culture, the Germans were positively crazy for them.
For Germans, Christmas trees were as much a cultural movement as they were political and the usage of the Christmas tree was a way of them redefining their Christian belief and moving away from the Catholic church.
Protestant houses throughout Germany were using the Christmas tree to demonstrate they were no longer agreeing with the papacy. Catholic houses typically would present a nativity scene with a crib or manger whereas Protestant houses would use the Christmas tree.
Because of its political and religious significance, the use of the Christmas tree rocketed in Germany until it was introduced further afield.
Queen Victoria and the first British Christmas tree
You may have read a lot of articles that start their Christmas tree journey here in the 1800s making the introduction of Christmas trees a very recent addition. This isn’t wholly the case and it would be a little unjust to the German culture to say it started here.
For us Brits, the tradition of having a tree in our homes certainly stems from this though. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were gifted a Christmas tree from their German family (yes, the British Royal Family has plenty of German ancestry) and this signalled the start of a time honoured British tradition that survives to this day.
This gave rise to the British Christmas tree, but if you’re American and wondering where you got your tradition from, well you can thank the Germans too. American homes have Christmas trees because they were imported during the American (Revolutionary) civil war by Hessian soldiers (German mercenaries) as well as German soldiers from Hanover which fought alongside the British because King George was king of Hanover and Great Britain.
Incidentally, the British lost the war, but despite that, the German Christmas tree alongside other European traditions survived and gained popularity in the United States after the Revolutionary war.
Christmas trees today
In more recent times, the idea of cutting down trees and installing them in houses was considered a chore and this gave rise to the plastic or fake Christmas tree. These trees though have quickly fallen from favour as although they offer some convenience, they are incredibly damaging to the environment.
Today, Christmas trees have lost much of their political and religious significance and are used in secular households that celebrate Christmas as a festival of goodwill. But, like many Christmas traditions, the tree has had an important role that is a lot more surprising than you would otherwise associate with it. Make sure your tree this Christmas is a real one, great for the environment and can stand proud in your home like the real Christmas trees that came centuries before it!