Christmas Traditions

The Christmas Tree

Because it’s such a big subject, the tradition of the Christmas Tree has its own page.  And I could have shared much more than I did.  Whew!


Tradtional satin ribbon & glass ornaments. Photo courtesy of Wendy Bumgardner, Walking Guide


Christmas Tree

Long before the birth of Jesus Christ and Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year were treasured.  Evergreen boughs were hung over doors and windows.  People of many lands firmly believed they kept away evil spirits, witches, ghosts, and illness.

Also the winter solstice was an important event.  In the Northern hemisphere many believed the sun was a god.  And the reason they had winter was because the sun god became sick and weak.

So evergreens reminded them of all green plants that would grow again in the spring and summer when the sun god was strong.  In some countries the evergreen boughs were symbols of everlasting life.  The Vikings believed they were a special plant of the sun god, Balder.

Egyptians worshipped a sun god called Ra and too filled their homes with green palm rushes at winter solstice.  In a similar fashion the early Romans celebrated solstice in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and they also decorated homes with evergreens.  They also decorated trees with small pieces of metal during the winter festival.

Then in the 7th century a monk named St. Boniface went to Germany to spread the word of God.  Legend has it he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity to the pagan tribes – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

The converts came to revere the fir tree as God’s tree.  This replaced their worship of the god Odin represented by the oak tree.

By the 12th century the tree was actually being hung upside-down from ceilings at Christmas time in Central Europe as a symbol of Christianity.  This tradition hasn’t completely disappeared.

Now there’s considerable variance over when the first decorated Christmas tree appeared.  One source cites 1510 in Latvia.  Of course, to also be considered is the Paradise tree.  This custom from the middle ages was to decorate a tree with apples on December 24th to symbolize the feast of Adam and Eve.

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Others say Germany in the mid-1500s.  However folklore credits Martin Luther as the first to put candles on a tree somewhere between 1525 and 1535.  This is uncertain although it’s said he wanted to show his children how the start twinkled in the night.  In contrast there are historians who say the first evidence of a lighted tree occurred in the mid-1600s.

Setting the lighting aside, there’s evidence of Christmas trees being sold in Alsace in 1531 (it was part of Germany then).  In the Cathedral of Strasbourg (part of Germany them) in 1539, the church record mentions the erection of a Christmas tree.

But the first written record of a decorated Christmas tree is thought to be from a guild chronicle in Germany in 1570; another record from a tailor in 1597; then from a 1605 diary found in Strasbourg describing a colorful tree filled with apples, paper roses and candies.

The German Hessian troops were British allies in the Revolutionary War.  They introduced the Christmas tree to America but it didn’t catch on with the populace.  Pockets of German immigrants were the only Americans with Christmas trees until the mid-1800s.  Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1842.  Then by 1850 Christmas trees were “fashionable” in the eastern states.

1850 - Queen Victoria's tree

The popularity of Queen Victoria is primarily responsible for how it evolved in England.  Her influence even impacted hoe the U.S. embraced the custom.

Her husband Prince Albert is credited with bringing the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal Family in 1834 even though it had arrived some years earlier when Victoria was a child.  Then in 1846, an illustration in the London News of the Royal Family around their tree is what made the custom take off.

Table top trees were the custom – sometimes each family member had their own tree.  And the gifts for them were placed under their tree.  In the later half of the 19th century small gifts were also placed or hung on the branches.  Then by the 1890s the trees had “grown” to the height of the room and were crammed with decorations and gifts.

President Franklin Pierce brought the first tree into to the White House in 1856.  And it was President Calvin Coolidge who displayed the first lighted tree in 1923.

Did you know the first artificial tree was made in the 1880s in Germany?  It was made from green-dyed goose feathers wound onto sticks drilled into a larger stick, like branches on a tree.  It’s written they were quite pretty.

More Christmas traditions combined with stories and more . . .

This came about through necessity because deforestation was plaguing Germany and statutes also limited each family to one tree.  The first feather trees arrived in the U.S. in 1913 thanks to the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog.

Although much, much more can be written about the Christmas tree, the last tradition I’ll mention here is the tree skirt.  Our decorative and ornate skirts of today originate from a very practical necessity.

As you know candles lit trees before strings of electric lights were invented.  So a mat or skirt was placed on the floor beneath the tree to protect it from the dripping candle wax.  It also served to collect the fallen needles.  Now its primary purpose is to hide the tree stand.

Enjoy your tree this year and every year.  It has a rich history and many traditions surround it.  May the Christmas tree bring joy to your home as it does to ours.

Go Here to read about the Traditions of wassailing and the Yule log – Page 6

or Return to the main Traditions page
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