What better way to celebrate the birth of someone who is the basis for one of the world’s greatest religions than by chopping down a tree, sticking shiny things on it and putting it in your living room for a few weeks in December?
This rather strange arboreal custom emerged in the 16th century in Germany.
The origins go back further yet, to ancient tree worship and pagan rituals tied to the winter solstice on December 21.
As with many of our Christmas traditions, you can choose from a selection of origin stories for the Christmas Tree.
The most popular and enduring is that when a monk who went on to become St. Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, appropriated trees for Christmas back in the 7th century, putting a pre-Christian tradition into the service of Christianity.
Boniface claimed that the triangular shape represented the Holy Trinity – God, his son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther is credited with the idea of putting lights on Christmas trees. The 16th-century monk added candles to his tree to look like stars in a forest.
In the middle of the 19th century, the tree trend got a boost from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, whose fondness for Christmas trees made them all the rage in England.
In 1848, a sketch of the British royal family around the Christmas tree was featured in the London Illustrated News.
The following year, the tradition of a Christmas Tree as popularized by Queen Victoria was brought to the attention of America when Sarah Josepha Hale featured Victoria’s tree in Lady’s Magazine. While the tradition of a Christmas Tree would have been brought over by the numerous German immigrants who arrived in the US in the 19th century, Hale can take some credit for making the Christmas Tree an evergreen element of the modern American Christmas – further boosting her Public Holiday street credentials as Hale was also responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Not that the journey to a tree in every US home wasn’t without bumps in the road. In 1883, an editorial in The New York Times noted a decline in the popularity of “the German Christmas Tree – a rootless and lifeless corpse.”
The ever practical Scandinavians took a different approach. Rather than drag a whole tree into the house, they took part of the trunk and burnt this Yule Log on the fire.
In Ukraine, there is a custom to decorate Christmas Trees with cobwebs due to the legend of the Christmas spider. In this folk tale, a poor widow was unable to afford decorations for her tree, but awoke on Christmas to find the tree covered in cobwebs sparkling in the sun. She was (reportedly) overjoyed with her new ‘decorations’.
Christmas Tree Facts
- The most popular Christmas trees are: Scotch pine, Douglas fir, noble fir, Fraser fir, balsam fir, Virginia pine and white pine.
- The first recorded use of the term ‘Christmas tree’ in English was in 1835.
- Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees in 1882. Christmas tree lights were first mass-produced in 1890.
- The first artificial Christmas trees with bristles were invented in the 1930s by a toilet brush company.
- Eighty percent of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China.
- Every year since 1947, the people of Oslo, Norway have given a Christmas tree to London, which is erected in Trafalgar Square. The gift is an expression of good will and gratitude for Britain’s help to Norway during World War II.
- The average Christmas tree contains about 30,000 bugs and insects.
- It’s tradition in Germany for the mother to trim the Christmas tree.
- The first Christmas tree angels appeared atop trees in 1831.
- Many parts of the Christmas tree can actually be eaten, with the needles being a good source of Vitamin C.
- The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler
- A Christmas Cornucopia by Mark Forsyth