Where did the Christmas Tree Originate? In Germany of Course!
In modern times we see the Christmas Tree as an obvious symbol of the Christmas Season. Whether you decorate it with fabulous blown glass ornaments or hand-made ornaments that the kids made at school… there it is… a tree in your home. Maybe there are lights and tinsel, or maybe you like ribbons, but it’s always decorated. Then on Christmas Eve… presents appear under it. It’s as much a part of Christmas as Nativity plays and gift giving. But it wasn’t always like that. So, where DID the Christmas Tree originate? The quick answer is Germany, but the longer answer is much more interesting.
Where did the Christmas Tree Originate?
Ever wonder how putting a decorated tree in the house came to be associated with Christmas? It looks like the actual Christmas tree is a mix of different traditions…. traditions blended, bits were added, previous reasons were forgotten or overwritten, and before you know it, Linus and the gang were singing.
More than 2000 years ago evergreen trees symbolized ‘life’ in the darkness of Winter. Romans celebrated the Solstice (December 21st) by decorating their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. The Vikings considered Evergreen trees to be a gift from Baldur the sun god, who would bring light and life back in the spring. Druids decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a sign of everlasting life. Pagans brought evergreen branches into their homes to remind them of the springtime to come.
But how did that evolve into a Christmas Tree?
In Germany during the 12th Century, December 24th was considered the feast day for Adam and Eve. (The Eastern Catholic Churches venerated Adam and Eve as Saints… the western Catholic churches never went that far, BUT they did not oppose it, so it spread to Germany.) On the 24th, in front of the church, there would be a Paradise Play, with the story of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Central to the stage props would be the Paradise Tree. Generally made out of wood, but sometimes made from an evergreen tree… decorated with apples.
When the Protestant Revolution arrived, Paradise Plays went away. Although some Catholics did bring the Paradise Tree inside.
This is where Legend starts to get mixed up with History, and dates get fuzzy.
Martin Luther and the Christmas Tree
Many credit Martin Luther for bringing the Christmas Tree into German homes. According to the legend, he was walking one evening, trying to compose Sunday’s Sermon. Seeing so many bright and shining stars through the branches in the forest gave him a sense of awe. He decided to try to recreate the magic feeling for his family. He brought a tree home, and attached candles to the branches. (One story says that he added Advent Candles to the tree… but since the Advent Wreath wasn’t invented until the 19th Century… I think they were just ordinary candles). And there was the first Christmas Tree in the house.
But was he really the first? Or was he part of a growing trend?
Guilds had been setting up decorated Christmas Trees in their Halls for a while. There is a reference to one at the Freiburg Fraternity Baker’s Apprentices of the German Alsace in 1419 (predating Luther). And an image of a decorated Christmas Tree being paraded with St Nicholas dates to 1521… a little early for Luther’s invention.
By 1550, the Christmas Tree seems to have been a part of German Lutheran Tradition, since by then the first Tannenbaum songs were already being written! (Flashbacks to German School Christmas performances…) And by 1570, a guild hall in Bremen had a tree decorated with nuts, apples, and paper flowers. Then in 1605, we have the best description of all from Strasbourg, “At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors of Strasbourg, and hang them with roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, and sweets”.
Still, in the early 18th century, Christmas trees were still much more common in the Northern Protestant areas of Germany… in the South, it was more common to find a Nativity in Catholic homes.
(As an aside…our house always had both. And because my parents couldn’t hide the tree in our open floor plan California home, the tree went up a week before Christmas, and the Nativity went up on Christmas Eve… mom was raised Catholic, dad a Lutheran, so traditions mixed).
Christmas Tree Decorations
Nuts, apples, and paper ornaments were the first Christmas Tree decorations. And in very early days, Baby Jesus in his Cradle was placed at the top of the tree. Someone must have felt this was a bit wobbly and unsafe for the infant, so he was replaced with a star. And in some homes a Golden Angel …the Christkind?
In time, Glass Blowers began blowing ornaments in the shape of nuts and apples to hang on the tree. (They could SELL these and buy actual food for their own families).
The Christmas Tree Spreads Beyond the Borders of Germany
Naturally, when emigrants left Germany, they took the tradition of the Christmas Tree with them. But it wasn’t always met with excitement and open arms. In 1621, William Bradford, the Puritan Governor of the Plymouth colony, wrote that he wanted to stamp out the “pagan mockery” that is the Christmas Tree, claiming that it promoted excess and had no scriptural basis. Puritans actually made celebrating Christmas ILLEGAL.
Time passed, more Germans arrived, and the Christmas tree became more common. (Some immigrants even brought special Feather Trees with them in their luggage!) The first went on public display in Pennsylvania in 1830, and by the 1890s, Christmas Ornaments from Germany were imported for sale.
The late 19th century early 20th century in the US, feelings shifted the Christmas Tree from a “German Tradition” to a universal Christmas tradition. One reason was the push by communities to make the holiday a “family centered” event with gift giving instead of “wassailing” (drinking). Then Clement Clark Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” cemented the image for everyone of what Christmas should be (although, if you read the poem, no Tree is mentioned –>A Visit from St Nicholas).
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Christmas Tree- creative commons
Royals and Christmas Trees
Royal families had the habit of marrying other royal families throughout Europe, and they took traditions with them. Queen Victoria is credited with popularizing the Christmas tree because of an image shared by the Illustrated London News of the Queen, her German-born husband Prince Albert, and their children standing around a brightly lit Christmas tree. But Royals from Germany had been spreading the love of Christmas trees for years. In 1800, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of George III of England, gave a Christmas Party complete with a Christmas tree covered in lights and sweets.
Christmas Trees in Germany
Christmas Trees may have spread out from Germany, but not all of the traditions were adopted by Americans.
In Germany, the Christmas Tree was always set-up on Christmas Eve … usually by parents… in a closed off room. The lit up tree would be revealed on Christmas Eve after the Christkind had arrived.
Traditionally, Germans use a Fir tree (or Noble Fir) because the space between the branches leaves room for ornaments to properly hang. Also, German Christmas Trees tend to be smaller. Trees at home don’t fill the room… they are often tabletop trees.
Edison and his string-light invention may be lighting trees in American homes, but in Germany, Candles are still used. (They aren’t left lit all day and night like lights might be here… and they are always supervised).
December 26th, the 2nd Christmas holiday, is a day from Christbaumloben (Christmas Tree praising). You go to a friend’s home and basically, praise the beauty of their Christmas Tree. Naturally, a good host or hostess will respond to the praise with a drink of something (maybe a Schnapps). And then you move on to the next home and praise that tree. Sounds like a nice way to spend the day.
Taking Down the Christmas Tree
In Germany, the Christmas Tree is generally left up until January 6th, the 12th day of Christmas or Epiphany. In some places they stay up until February 2nd! (Here in the US I find them on the curb on the 26th.) But then, in Germany, the Christmas Holidays are more than Dec. 24 and 25.
When the tree is taken down on January 6th, children can “plunder” the tree. Basically, remove and eat all of the edible treats… candies, nuts, and fruit left on the tree. Some communities have bonfires to burn the trees.
And then it’s done.
One last Christmas Tree Legend
St Boniface and the Christmas Tree
St Boniface, an English missionary, was sent to Germany where he fought tirelessly to convert Pagans. He destroyed their temples, and built churches to replace them. Eventually he was promoted to Archbishop of Mainz and founded the diocese of Bavaria. (Interestingly, he’s also the patron saint of Beer… so Bavaria was a good landing spot for him).
St Boniface cuts down Thor’s Oak Charles Robinson (1870–1937), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As the story goes… on the Solstice, he came upon a group of Pagans around an Oak Tree. Some say they were about to sacrifice a child that they had tied to the tree, others say they were just worshiping the tree. Boniface took an Ax and chopped the Oak Tree down. Immediately, a Fir Tree grew up in its place (although some stories say that Boniface planted it himself… things get murky after 1000 years). The evergreen Fir Tree was meant to symbolize God’s eternal love.
A year later all of the pagans in the area had been converted to Christianity, so they hung decorations on the Fir Tree on Christmas… rather than celebrate the Solstice. My favorite part came when they added candles so Boniface could preach after dark.
Christmas Trees Today
Today Christmas trees are everywhere, in homes, churches, even in the corner of your local fast food chain. It’s like they were always there… always a part of the story. But it wasn’t always so. We can thank Germany for bringing a tree covered in lights and magic into our lives.