How Christmas trees became a tradition: A story with German roots
It’s that time of year, once again, to deck the halls and hang the mistletoe ready for the upcoming holiday season.
Christmas tree origins
The undisputed king of Christmas decor, the Christmas tree, makes an appearance in hallways and living rooms around the world, topped with a star, an angel, or other type of decoration depending on each household’s preference.
But how did this odd practice of bringing trees indoors to dress them in an array of tinsel, lights and ornaments become the norm around the globe? The story begins right here, in Germany.
The German tradition of Christmas trees
While evergreen trees have always had a special meaning for people across the world during winter, and decorating homes during the cold winter weather was common practice long before Christianity, the first placement of Christmas trees to celebrate the holiday was seen in Germany, sometime around the 1500s.
The story goes that in 1510 a group of German merchants, who were members of a guild called the Brotherhood of Blackheads, placed a spruce tree outside their headquarters, and set fire to it, to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Since then, the tradition spread throughout Germany, and by the mid-to-late-16th century, trees were erected in town squares across the country, decked with paper flowers and pretzels and burned each year, to celebrate the holiday.
The 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther is often credited with starting the tradition in Germany, though records show that the first trees did not appear in the country until years after his death in 1546. Despite this, legend still has it that Luther came up with the idea in 1536 while he was walking through a pine forest, admiring the way the light from the stars glistened through the trees.
Germans introduced Christmas trees to America, England and France
As Christmas tree mania spread through Germany, the trend began to spill over into the rest of the world. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought the trees to America, while Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert is said to have exported the trend to the United Kingdom; shortly thereafter Christmas trees became all the rage in the British upper classes. With a similarly royal connection, the Duchess of Orleans, from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is said to have brought the Christmas tree tradition to Paris.
Baubles, or Christmas ornaments, that are used to decorate trees, also have a German origin. The first glass baubles were created in Thuringia sometime between 1550 and 1609. Years later, in the 1850s, German scientist Justus von Liebig added a silver nitrate solution to silver the balls, giving them a shiny, reflective appearance, for painters to paint intricate designs on afterwards.
Over time, and as Christmas trees became international, the traditional way of decorating trees changed from a quintessentially German pretzel-and-nuts affair, to the modern tinsel and electric lights we use today.
This video from Business Insider shows many stunning examples of how Christmas trees have been decorated over the years.
Real vs artificial Christmas trees
Today, Europe buys around 50 million “real” Christmas trees each year, to celebrate the holiday season. While real trees are still very popular, there is also a large demand for synthetic, artificial evergreens. Artificial Christmas trees have a longer history than many people realise, too. In the late 1800s, Christmas tree production in Germany was leading to mass deforestation, and several inventors stepped in to try and tackle the issue.
The first artificial trees were made from goose feathers that had been dyed green and wrapped around a small wooden peg to create a tree shape. Other substitutes were trees created from bristles, and in the 1960s green aluminium Christmas trees reached the height of popularity in the US. The majority of the artificial trees that are purchased today are made from recycled PVC packaging materials, and are produced in China, around the Pearl River Delta.
The argument continues annually between real and artificial tree proponents as to which is better. While real trees are the traditional, historic way to decorate homes at Christmas, with a wonderful smell and a natural texture, it can be inconvenient to clean up dropped pine needles frequently and there are environmental consequences of annual deforestation.
Artificial trees on the other hand can prevent deforestation, be reused every year and do not need to be cleaned up frequently, but there are concerns about the economic effects of plastic production, and they simply do not smell or feel the same as a real Christmas tree.
Christmas trees across the world
Even though the tradition started in Germany, many countries that have adopted the practice have given it their own twist. From Japan to South Africa, the tradition has been embraced and adapted to suit the customs of each country. For example, in many southern-hemisphere countries, such as Brazil and South Africa, Christmas falls during the summer, so trees are decorated with small pieces of cotton, representing wintry weather and snow.
In Japan, which has a rich history of its own culture and traditions, Christmas trees are decorated with origami figures, expertly folded pieces of paper that create shapes such as cranes, flowers, swans and doves. While there are not many people in Japan who celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday, many families and children do celebrate the day as a secular holiday, and therefore still decorate trees and give gifts to the people they love.
In other countries, such as the Philippines, the cost of importing a Christmas tree is extremely expensive, so many people choose to make trees, much like the artificial trees that people used to make before plastic became popular. These beautiful handmade trees are often made from bamboo sticks covered with coloured paper.
Enjoy the holiday season!
Whether you're putting up a real or an artificial tree this year - or even if you won't have one at all - we wish you a merry Christmas, and an amazing New Year!