Even if you are a bit of a scrooge at Christmas, and don’t like to don your home from top to toe in sparkly things and twinkling lights at Christmas (and if so, why ever not??), I’ll bet you still have at least one little Christmas tree somewhere in your home.
Christmas trees have become a festive staple in our homes over the Christmas period. From the short, wide real spruce, chopped down at a local farm, to the towering 6ft artificial trees that live in the loft for the rest of the year, they have become a treasured part of our Christmas traditions. But have you ever thought about how the humble tree became such a key part of the Christmas festivities we cherish today?
Bringing trees and foliage into the home has been a Pagan tradition for hundreds of years. In Pagan rituals, evergreen flora is brought into the home during the period of the winter solstice. The solstice occurs between December 21st – 22nd, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year. Ancient people worshipped the sun as a god, and believed that winter arrived because the sun had become weak. The solstice marked the point at which the sun would begin to regain health and shine for longer during the day.
Evergreen plants were regarded highly because they reminded people of the fruitfulness of the land when the sun god was most healthy. Many ancient civilisations, including Romans during the festival of Saturnalia, Egyptians in their worship of the Sun God Ra, Druids, and Vikings in worship of Balder, would decorate their homes and temples with evergreen plants.
It was also believed in many countries throughout history that evergreen boughs would keep witches, ghosts, evil spirits and even illness away. Therefore people would hang boughs of evergreen plants over their front doors or within their entranceways in order to ward away the evil spirits. This tradition continues today as we hang wreaths and swags over our doors and fireplaces.
It is widely believed that the Christmas tree tradition began in Germany, with Christians bringing in and decorating trees, either real plants or wooden models. Martin Luther, a 16th Century Protestant reformer, is regarded as possibly the first person to bring in a real tree and to add candles to it after walking home one evening and being dazzled by the beauty of the stars twinkling among the evergreen trees. He was allegedly so awed by the beauty of the scene, that he brought a tree into his home and placed candles amongst the branches so that himself and his wife could admire the beauty of the tree glittering with light without having to face the cold outdoors.
‘Paradise Trees’ were commonplace props in religious plays during the 1500s, depicting the tree in the Garden of Eden. When these plays were banned late in the 16th century by religious bodies who resented the plays’ seemingly frivolous nature, people began to build and decorate wooden Paradise Trees in their own homes in order to still enjoy the spectacle. However, across America during the 16th – early 19th centuries, Christmas was seen as a sacred Christian event, and any acts influenced by Pagan traditions were seen as heathen and frivolous and were severely frowned upon. Right up until he 1840s people could even be fined for hanging Christmas decorations.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are generally regarded to be the people who really launched the popularity of the Christmas tree within the modern home. Prince Albert brought spruce trees with him from his German traditions in the early 1840s, wanting to retain his childhood memories here in England. In 1848, the London Illustrated News depicted a sketch of the family Christmas scene at Windsor Castle, centred around a spruce tree decorated with apples, sweets and candles. Due to Queen Victoria’s popularity among her subjects, this is where the Christmas tree began to become popular among British and eventually American people.
Decades prior to this however, it was actually Charlotte, King George III’s German wife, who history tells us first put a Christmas tree in her home in England, in 1800. Charlotte brought with her in the 1700s the German tradition of hanging a yew branch in the parlour of the home, decorated with sweets and candles, tinsel and presents. This caused a small sensation amongst the British people, but nothing as much as when she decided in 1800 to pot a whole yew tree inside Windsor Castle and hang it with tinsel, sweets, decorations and presents for the children. The children were so excited by the spectacle, they exclaimed that it was as though they had been transported to wonderland. This began the trend for Christmas trees amongst the British upper classes and aristocracy, however it was Victoria’s popularity amongst the people that boosted the appeal of the tree in homes all over the country at Christmas time.
The Christmas tradition had taken the world by storm, with authors and storytellers working to create a family-friendly image of Christmas as a time for joining together and being merry and joyful. Clement Moore’s 1822 poem ‘Twas the night before Christmas’ fuelled this idea further and portrayed a peaceful time during Christmas with the family. This drew us away from the older, Pagan traditions such as wassailing which were seen as ‘too rowdy’, and carol singing became another popular tradition which replaced taking a drink from door to door in exchange for presents (wassailing), to singing door to door to spread cheer. Personally, I like the idea behind orchard-wassailing, which involves visiting an apple orchard which produces cider in England, and reciting incantations and singing around the trees to promote a healthy harvest in the coming year.
By the early 20th century, the Christmas tree had become commonplace around America and Europe. Americans would decorate their trees with homemade decorations, whilst Europeans continued to decorate theirs with sweets, fruits and nuts. Over time, red baubles sculpted from glass replaced the shiny red apples that previously would have been hung on the tree, as they promised to last year on year. Electricity made it possible to hang strings of lights upon the tree, and they could stay lit for much longer. It was then that they began to pop up in town squares, and the Christmas tree became even more popular across America.
Rockefeller, NYC – The first Rockefeller tree was erected in 1930 by construction workers, unadorned and relatively small, as a festive token whilst they were working. Today, the tree is a giant spectacle, laden with over 25000 lights. The largest Rockefeller Christmas tree was a Norway spruce from Connecticut and measured 100 foot in height.
Trafalgar Square – This tree has been donated annually each year since 1947 by the people of Oslo, Norway as a token of appreciation for Britain’s help provided to Norway during the Second World War. The tree is a Norway spruce, usually 50-60 years old, and usually measures over 20 metres in height.
Rio de Janeiro – The World’s largest floating Christmas tree. Located at Ipanema Lagoon, the tree is illuminated by over 3.3 million lights and weighs 542 tonnes. We haven’t seen this one in person, but I bet it’s spectacular!
How about you, what type of tree do you have in your home, and how do you decorate yours?
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