The Origins Of Christmas Trees And Their Decorations: Part II
Early Christmas Trees
The origins of the Christmas Tree are steeped in lore, mystery and legend. Saints are at the root of many Christian tales. In history, however, saints do not assume a role. Records provide approximate dates when decorated Christmas trees arrived and where.
First Christmas Trees
Legend credits two different religious people for the beginning of the tree tradition. St. Boniface of Crediton, England, came to Germany in the 7th century to convert the heathens. To prove the power of his Church, he cut down a sacred Oak tree. From where it had once stood, a small fir appeared. Boniface declared this to represent the overwhelming of the Old Religion by the new True Faith. The Evergreen, therefore, came to symbolize the new religion. Another version states the Saint used the triangular shape of the tree to illustrate the Holy Trinity.
An early geographer contributed to the power of the myth when, in the 10th century, he wrote how all the trees in the forest bore fruit or blossoms on the winter eve when Christ was born. This explains why people brought in branches of cherry, pear or hawthorn into their home in November and “forced” them to bloom by Christmas. This was to account for the fervour of Germans for Christmas trees. By the 1550s, Germans were able to obtain their trees in the local market. In fact, Strasbourg was a very popular Christmas tree market as early as 1531.
First Decorated Trees
The honour of the first decorated Christmas tree belongs to Riga, Latvia. Records indicate that, as early as 1510, a tree graced the city’s square. A tree was also decorated in Reval, Estonia, in 1514. According to records from the period, the Riga tree was bedecked with artificial roses, carried to the marketplace, danced around and then burnt.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) is said to be responsible for placing candles on a tree. After a walk one Christmas Eve in the forest, he became entranced by the beauty, power and symbolism of the stars. He brought home an uprooted fir tree, placed it in his home and put candles upon it. He used them to demonstrate to his children the stars of the sky and God’s firmament. The flaw with this tale, however, is its basis is an 1845 rendition of the event by artist Carl Augustus Schwerdgeburth (1785-1878).
Christmas Trees In Germany And France
It is Germany, however, who is most responsible for the tree tradition. This includes different provinces or territories attached to the larger country. Alsace was one such territory. One Alsatian legend concerns Good St. Florentin. He wanted to give the children a happy Christmas. He did not have much money. He went to the forest where he had seen a perfect, snow-covered fir tree, cut it down and brought it home. He set it up, decorated it with nuts, apples and tiny bees-wax candles. The children were pleased and amazed at this Christmas tree.
In 1521, Alsatian trees at court had lights. In 1531, trees were sold in the Strasburg market. An ordinance for the area around the city stated no person “shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoe lengths.” Nearby places, forbade even the gathering of greenery. This was to change as by the 1550s many markets in Germany and its territories had trees and ornaments for sale.
A typical “German” tree was described in a letter written by Liselotte von der Pfalz (1652-1722), sister-in-law to King Louis XIV of France, describing the trees of her childhood. She noted, during the 17th century, “tables are fixed up like altars and outfitted for each child with all sorts of things, such as new clothes, silver, dolls, sugar candy and so forth. Boxwood trees are set on the tables, and a candle fastened to each branch.”
An Alsatian princess, Princess Hélenè de Mecklebourg, when she moved to Paris, after marrying the Duke d’Orléans, brought the tradition with her to France. The Christmas trees did not have, however, lights upon its branches. By the 1890s, however, between 30 and 35,000 trees were sold in Paris. The German’s were peacefully conquering the culture of their sworn enemy.
The Germans and the early church have contributed much to our understanding of the early Christmas tree. Saints and Kings have supplied their own embellishments. Over time, the Christmas tree emerges as a colourful symbol and both a religious and secular institution. Part three will look at the Medieval Church and the Christmas Tree and its variations.
Aswynn, Freya Northern Mysteries. (St. Paul, MN, 1990).
Buchanan, R.H “Calendar Customs.” Ulster Folklore. 8 (1962).
Campanelli, P. Pagan Rites of Passage. (St. Paul, MN., 1998).
Wheel of the Year. (St. Paul, MN, 1989).
Durie, William. “Tree and Plant Lore.” The Celtic Magazine. 11 (1886).
Fowler, W. The Roman Festivals in the Time of the Republic. (London, 1899).
Krythe, Maymie, R. All About Christmas (New York, 1954).
Matthews, J. The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. (Wheaton, IL, 1998)
Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (New York,  1978).
Muir, Frank Christmas Customs and Traditions (New York, 1975).
Slade, Paddy. Encyclopedia of White Magic. (New York, 1990).
Snyder, Phillip V. The Christmas Tree Book. (New York, 1976).
More by this Author
English Bulldogs have a variety of skin folds. Some dogs have deep, heavily folded flaps of skin. Other bullies have shallow skin folds. They may form part of their loveable mug or sit hidden behind the tail. Yet, it...
In the early 19th century, matches were made from white phosphorous. This toxic substance caused a disease called "Phossy Jaw." Striking match girls and the Berne Convention (1906) led to its demise.
The Chinese Zodiac system provides you with a system of Heavenly Stems (one version refers to the Five Elements another to a more complicated configuration) and Earthly Branches.