It is generally believed that the first Christmas tree was of German origin dating from the time of St. Boniface, an English missionary to Germany in the 8th century. He replaced the sacrifices to the Norse god Odin’s sacred oak — some say it was Thor‘s Thunder Oak — with a fir tree adorned in tribute to the Christ Child.
The legend is told that Boniface found a group of “pagans” preparing to sacrifice a boy near an oak tree near Lower Hesse, Germany. He cut down the oak tree with a single stroke of his ax and stopped the sacrifice. A small fir tree sprang up in place of the oak. He told the pagans that this was the “tree of life” and stood for Christ.
A legend began to circulate in the early Middle Ages that when Jesus was born in the dead of winter, all the trees throughout the world shook off their ice and snow to produced new shoots of green. The medieval Church would decorate outdoor fir trees, known as “paradise trees,” with apples on Christmas Eve. They called it “Adam and Eve Day” and celebrated with a play.
During Renaissance times, there are records that trees were being used as symbols for Christians first in the Latvian capital of Riga in 1510. One story goes that it was attended by men wearing black hats in front of the House of Blackheads in the Town Hall Square, who, following a ceremony, burnt the tree. But whether it was for Christmas or Ash Wednesday is still debated.
I’ve stood in that very square myself in the Winter, years ago, surrounded by snow.
Accounts persist that Martin Luther introduced the tree lighted with candles in Wittenberg, Germany, in the mid 16th century. He often wrote and preached on Advent and Christmas. He loved Christmas and wrote at least five hymns about it. One of his students wrote of Luther saying:
For this is indeed the greatest gift, which far exceeds all else that God has created. Yet we believe so sluggishly, even though the angels proclaim and preach and sing, and their lovely song sums up the whole Christian faith, for “Glory to God in the highest” is the very heart of worship.
As Luther was returning to his home after a walk one winter night, the story goes, he tried unsuccessfully to describe to his family the beauty of the starry night glittering through the trees. Instead, he went outside, cut down a small fir tree to bring inside his home, and put lighted candles upon it.
In a manuscript dated 1605, a merchant in Strasbourg, Germany (at that time) wrote that at Christmas, they set up fir trees in the parlors to
“hang thereon roses cut out of paper of many colors, apples, wafers, spangle-gold and sugar…”
Though Christmas tree selling is mentioned back to the mid-1500s in Strasbourg, the custom of decorating the trees may have developed from the medieval Paradise Play. This play was a favorite during the Advent season because it ended with the promise of a Savior. The action in the play centered around a fir tree hung with apples.
The earliest date in England for a Christmas Tree was at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor by Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of George III, for a party she held on Christmas Day, 1800, for the children of the leading families in Windsor. Her biographer Dr. John Watkins describes the scene:
In the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked around and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore together with a toy and then all returned home, quite delighted.
The Christmas Tree was most successfully popularized in England by the German Prince Albert soon after his marriage to Queen Victoria. Though the tree had been introduced by a previous royal consort, in 1841, he began the recurring annual custom of decorating a large tree in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a print showing the Royal couple with their children was published in the “Illustrated London News.”
Albert gave trees to Army barracks, and imitation followed. From this time onwards, the popularity of decorated fir trees spread beyond Royal circles and throughout British society, thanks mainly to Albert’s efforts.
Even Charles Dickens referred to the Christmas tree as that “new German toy.” Eventually, he had one in his London townhome. German immigrants brought the custom to the United States, and tree decorating is recorded back to 1747 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Many communities vie for the honor of having decorated the first Christmas tree in America. One story tells of Hessian (German) soldiers who fought for King George III in the Revolutionary War. As they were keeping Christmas in Trenton, New Jersey, around a decorated tree, they left their posts unguarded. George Washington and his troops were hungry and freezing at Valley Forge, but they planned their attack with the knowledge that the Hessians would be celebrating and thus would not be as able to defend themselves.
Christmas trees became quite popular in the United States following the invention of the electric light. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland decorated the tree at the White House with electric Lights. This idea caught on and spread across the country.
How do you decorate your Christmas Tree?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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