The Christmas tree forms a quintessential part of modern holiday traditions. Tinsel and garland ring around the conifer branches, lights twinkle in earnest, and ornaments adorn delicate branch-tips. How did this integral part of the holidays come about? Christmas trees, literally and figuratively, possess deep roots. In this article, I’ll share a few facts about this important holiday symbol.
#1: The Christmas tree may have roots in ancient history
The end of December often signifies a time to reflect on the last year, expelling the last vestiges of ill tidings, and starting fresh in the new year. Though the modern Christmas centerpiece takes the form of a conifer, other greenery also served a similar purpose. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the Devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Christmas tree,” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 7, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree.
It stands to reason, then, that we pulled from these diverse traditions as modern Christmas practices developed.
#2: Apples adorned the branches of early Christmas trees
Many people decorate their Christmas tree with brightly-colored glass baubles. But did you know this tradition originated with apples instead? In an exhibit on the history of Christmas decorations, the Alsatian city of Sélestat recounts that red apples, representing the Christian story of Adam and Eve, appear in the earliest accounts of Christmas tree decoration.1Office de la Culture de Sélestat, “The history of the Christmas tree since 1521”. Apples from this region are still affectionately called “Christkindel Apfel”.2Ibid.
In the late 16th century and onwards, celebrants would add other items such as roses, paper flowers, nuts, acorns, and dates. American Christmas trees became adorned with “paper cornucopiae, dolls, gilded egg cups, fruits, especially apples and nuts, and, of course, candies. Cookies, candies, pine cones, seed pods, ribbons, and homemade ‘whimsies’ also were favored”.3Laura Lynne Scharer, “Christmas Past: How to Decorate Your Historical Tree,” History News 35, no. 12 (1980): 10, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42650349. Scharer writes that later trees held even more fascinating goodies such as flags, glass balls, birds, paper stars, and pincushions!
#3: The Germans popularized the Christmas tree in Europe and the United States
The 19th century experienced the widespread adoption of Christmas trees throughout Europe and America thanks to the German populace. “Everywhere where the Christmas-tree custom has been adopted we find that German emigrants, German sailors from merchant vessels, or German man-of-war, have first introduced it,” Alexander Tille wrote in Folklore magazine in 1892.4Alexander Tille, “German Christmas and the Christmas-Tree,” Folklore 3, no. 2 (1892): 168, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1253194.
In France, Duchess Helene of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, wife of the heir apparent to the throne, and Eugénie de Montijo, empress and wife of Napoleon III, imported and popularized the Christmas tree in France in the nineteenth century.5Ibid., 166-167. Tille writes that the custom also spread to the Netherlands, Russia, Italy, and the United States via the Germans.6Ibid., 166-167.
In England, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the German-born consort of King George III, first brought the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in 1800:
Here…in the middle of the room stood a tub with a yew-tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in paper, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore, together with a toy, and returned home quite delighted.John Watkins, Memoirs of Her Most Excellent Majesty Sophia-Charlotte Queen of Great Britain from Authentic Documents Embellished with Portraits (London: Henry Colburn, 1819): 462.
Later on in the century, the domestic life perpetuated and inspired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert helped spread Christmas traditions in both England and the United States.
#4: The French city of Sélestat claims the title of “Christmas Tree Capital”
The Christmas tree plays an integral role in the history of Sélestat, a city in the Alsace region of France. A document there contains the first known written reference to a Christmas tree in 1521.7Office de la Culture de Sélestat, “The history of the Christmas tree since 1521”. An online exhibit hosted by the Office de la Culture de Sélestat documents this history in greater detail. Although other cities may claim a similar title, it’s clear that the city appreciates and celebrates its unique connection to Christmas evergreens.
Christmas trees have a varied and fascinating history. I’ve only reached the tip of the evergreen, so to speak. Check out the Further Reading and Sources sections below to learn more about one of Christmas’s most prominent symbols!
- Victorian Christmas Traditions from English Heritage
- A Royal Christmas: Christmas in the Royal Collection from Royal Collection Trust
- Scharer, Laura Lynne. “Christmas Past: How to Decorate Your Historical Tree.” History News 35, no. 12 (1980): 9–11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42650349 (accessed December 12, 2022).
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Christmas tree.” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 7, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree (accessed December 12, 2022).
- Tille, Alexander. “German Christmas and the Christmas-Tree.” Folklore 3, no. 2 (1892): 166–82. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1253194 (accessed December 11, 2022).
- Watkins, John. Memoirs of Her Most Excellent Majesty Sophia-Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain from Authentic Documents Embellished with Portraits. London: Henry Colburn, 1819. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Memoirs_of_Her_Most_Excellent_Majesty_So/h68-GrAgHOYC?hl=en.
Please note: Some of the links in this article may be behind a paywall and require login access from a university or library or membership.
Featured image: “Christmas Belles,” Winslow Homer, wood engraving, from Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1869, p.8 (©National Gallery of Art, 1958.3.23/Public Domain)