The fir tree was put into a great tub filled with sand... The servants, and the young ladies also decked it out. On one branch they hung little nets, cut out of colored paper; every net was filled with sweetmeats; golden apples and walnuts hung down as if they grew there, and more than a hundred little candles, red, white and blue, were fastened to the different boughs. Dolls that looked exactly like real people—the Tree had never seen such before—swung among the foliage, and high on the summit of the Tree was fixed a tinsel star. It was splendid, particularly splendid. "This evening," said all, "this evening it will shine.”
--Hans Christian Andersen
The First Christmas Trees
The first Christmas trees were decorated with apples, as a symbol of Man’s Fall in the Garden of Eden. They were therefore called Paradise trees. In the Middle Ages, the Paradise tree was assembled on the feast day of Adam and Eve, 24th December. Possibly the earliest depiction of a Paradise tree is from 1521, a German painting showing a process of musicians accompanying a horse-riding holy man—a bishop or perhaps St Nicholas—parading through a town. One of the men is holding a tree decorated with what looks like apples (having not seen the painting myself, I wonder if instead it could be the golden balls from the St Nicholas story?). Alsace, too, had a tradition of Paradise trees. A candlelit fir was erected in a London street in the 15th century. Perhaps the first recorded mention of a Christmas tree is from a diary in Strasbourg in 1605. This one was decorated with paper roses, apples, sweets, and gold foil. The people of Latvia also claim to be first with the Christmas tree erected in Riga in 1510. Men in black hats held a ceremony in front of the tree, before burning it (!). Trees were recorded at the beginning of the 17th century in Sélestat, France, adorned with golden apples. We have reference to lighted trees in the correspondence of the Princess Palatine and the Duchess of Orléans.
We have read how the evergreen tradition of magic was important to the Celts. In order to make it their own, Church officials perpetuated the legend of St Boniface. He was a monk and schoolmaster from Devon living in the 7th and 8th centuries. In Geismar, Germany, he preached the gospel at the behest of Pope Gregory II. The story goes that he came upon a group of pagans worshiping a sacred oak tree, who were then going to prepare a blood sacrifice of a baby. The saint came to the rescue, grabbing the axe and chopping down the tree instead. He saw that from the roots of the felled tree a fir tree grew. Sometimes this story is linked to the 7th century Wilfrid of York. One source gives the much less brutal story that St Boniface connected the triangular shape of the fir tree with the Trinity. The same source claims there were Christmas trees hung suspended from the ceiling by the 12th century in Europe!
The Victorian Tree
An engraving from 1806 from Strasbourg, called Le sommeil de l’enfant, la nuit de Noël shows a small tree suspended from the ceiling. Certainly in Germany the tradition of the Christmas Tree was deeply engrained by the close of the 18th century; Strasbourg, apparently a hub of Christmas tree activity, saw the formation of Christmas markets at the beginning of the 15th century. At these markets, you could find all of Christmas needs—food, presents, decorations, and utensils. Bakers made gingerbread you could bring home and use as decorations on your tree.
During the Georgian period in Britain, German court officials had brought their tree traditions with them, but because the foreign traditions were looked down upon at court, the trees did not catch on, despite the patronage of Queen Caroline. The popular decorations—tinsel, wire ornaments, candles—had been manufactured in Germany and East Europe since the 17th century. Each person had a small, tabletop tree with their presents put underneath the table. (An engraving from 1870 shows fashionable Parisian women and children decorating a tabletop tree with toys.)
Christmas 1841: one of Prince Albert’s many contributions to Britain culminated in his introduction of the Christmas tree to the celebrations at Windsor Castle. He wrote to his father, “This is the dear Christmas eve on which I have so often listened with impatience for your step, which was to convey us into the gift-room. Today I have two children of my own to make gifts to, who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas-tree and its radiant candles.” The trend caught on quickly, with all fashionable people in the UK following suit. (The tradition had already been introduced in the US by German immigrants, as early as 1747, but also grew in popularity by the 1850s.) The large trees were decorated with lighted candles, candies, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbon and by paper chains. (Fire was always a hazard; during Dickens’ time, it was advised that one person in the family should have the job of professional candle-watcher, always with his or her eye on the tree lights. Despite this, accidents were all too common.)
The sapin de Noël of France was introduced universally in 1837. In the US, trees ranged greatly in size and could cost a few cents or up to more than half a dollar. Until the 1890s, when Christmas tree holders were invented, medium-size trees were placed in small tubs which were filled with stones, coal, or anything that would keep the tree straight. Then moss was strewn over the tub. Small trees were usually pasted to a board carpeted with moss (big on this moss, weren’t they?). An engraving from an 1876 Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine shows the smaller presents on the tree with the larger ones propped up at the base of the tree.
In the 1850s, Lauscha began producing glass garlands of beads which were readily available in Germany but were not available for export to Britain. However, the Rauschgoldengel was a common sight—the “Tinsel-angel” at the top of the tree. By the 1880s, people crammed everything they could onto the tree, and by the 1890s they were, in von Staufer’s words, “a child’s joy to behold!” By 1880 in the UK, Woolworths was producing mass market ornaments. After the death of Victoria in 1901, trees became less visible. A brief vogue for Goose Feather trees arose because Christmas tree frenzy in Germany had topped many of the trees! In the 1930s a Dickens revival took place which of course influenced the decoration of the trees.
Decorating the Tree
In Victorian times, when the tree was being selected, the lady of the house was gilding and silvering nuts and ornaments. Children would help by making paper chains. Fruit and popcorn chains were popular in the US (but apparently were never heard of in Britain!). Hard candy tied in squares of colored tissue paper was hung from branches. Paper flowers and sometimes real roses were placed near the top of the tree. Chains of stars, hearts, and other shapes were strung together on pasteboard and covered with gilt paper. When paper was covered with a coating of gum tragacanth or mucilage and then sprinkled with diamond dust (finely powdered glass) it created a nice sparkly effect. Fairies were cut out of the fashion plates of Godey’s or such magazines; legs and skirts were elaborately and imaginatively created by using trimmings and gilt as well as tartalan. Cornucopias were made out of gilt or colored paper and filled with sweets. Pine cones were gilded by using the same paint used on radiators! Even in these days, it was considered most elegant just to trim the tree with candles. Purists! American Victorian Mrs Abby Woolsey estimated it would take over one hundred candles to light her tree properly.
The Pennsylvania Dutch and Moravian communities in the US during the 19th century created the putz or Christmas village, a miniature Christmas village created around the base of the Christmas tree. Certainly it would seem this custom shares its roots with the French/Neopolitan crèche or the 18th century berceaux (see December 5). Children of the community would organize to go out on an expedition weeks before Christmas to search for natural items, such as moss, lichen, and rocks, to add to their putz. According to Haug, “It is probable that on Christmas Eve, 1741, when Count Zinzendorf named the Moravian settlement on the Lehigh, Bethlehem, a Putz adorned the little log building in which he and his brethren were first assembled.” A mountain scene complete with lake and waterfowl would first be created. Houses, fences, and livestock were then added to the scene. In the community of Bethlehem, PN, the Simon Rare & Co. wax candle company had been making candles since the 18th century, and it was from here the putz would acquire its atmospheric lighting. It was then the tradition for people to go sightseeing the putzes on Christmas Eve. Eventually it became so popular it spread outside the Moravian community.
And Then . . .?
The first Christmas tree market in the US was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. Christmas tree farms flourished in the Great Depression because nurserymen couldn’t sell their evergreens for landscaping, so it made more sense to cut them up. The lighting ceremony for the Christmas tree at the White House was broadcast as early as 1925 (on radio??). Britain adopted from the US the practice of Christmas trees in public places.
Is it more environmentally friendly to buy a real tree or a plastic, artificial one? Well, we know that it’s better to get a living tree, but in case you were still unsure, plastic takes longer to biodegrade so it’s still better to get a live tree.