A brief history of the Christmas Tree

Published Thursday 11th December 2014

Halloween’s been and gone, we’ve burned most of our leftover wood on November fifth and now it’s time to decide where abouts in the front room the tree goes. 

Christmas trees are a wonderful way to get the family involved in the festive decorating process, but the journey this famous tradition has gone through from ancient ritual to commercial staple is fascinating.

 

Read our handy guide on the history of the Christmas tree and don’t be stumped on your arboreal knowledge this holiday season.

 

Early Origins

 

Long before the advent of Christianity, pagans in the northern hemisphere would hang out evergreen boroughs between the shortest day of the year, which falls between the 21st and 22nd of December, as an indication of the green plants that would return in the spring.

 

The pagans believed that the sun was a god who became weak around this time of the year, so they celebrated the winter solstice as the time when the sun god became strong once again.

 

Beginnings of Tradition

 

The Germans are credited with the introduction of the Christmas tree in its traditional form, however, legend has it that the first ever tree displayed for festive purposes was in Latvia.

 

In the centre of the Latvian capital, Riga, a plaque states a ‘First New Year’s Tree’ was burned down in 1510. Unfortunately, not much is known about the tree apart from the fact the ceremony was attended by men in black hats who burned it down after the service.

 

The pagan association Christmas trees had did not bode well with the purists in its journey, particularly the notoriously miserable ruler of England, Oliver Cromwell. In 1647, a puritan-led government banned the celebration of Christmas to be replaced with a day of fasting - stating celebrations like the trees were ‘poppy’ and had ‘no biblical justification’.

 

America also had a difficult time accepting the joyful ways of celebrating Christmas in their history. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25th that wasn’t religious a penal offense - people were fined for hanging decorations.  

 

Step into Christmas

 

The German influence on Christmas became very popular in the UK following Prince Albert’s (Queen Victoria’s German husband's) decision to set up a tree in Windsor castle in 1841. An illustration of the royals enjoying each other’s company around a large Christmas tree was published in the Illustrated London News, 1848.

 

This drawing boosted the Christmas tree’s popularity enormously and after republished in Godey’s Lady Book in Philadelphia, 1850, it strengthened its position as the norm in America - although Queen Victoria’s crown and Prince Albert’s moustache were removed to make it more ‘American’.

 

The early 20th century saw the traditional German elements of the Christmas tree fully established, with apples, nuts and marzipan cookies being used as decorative treats. The introduction of electricity ended the need to hang candles, meaning the trees could shine on for days.

 

It was noted that Europeans used small trees that were about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.

 

Around the World

 

Now we’re clued up on the tree’s origins and journey into becoming a staple of festive celebrations, how do other Christians around the world decorate their trees?

 

Away from Europe, different countries have come up with some amazing ways of adapting to their climate and the sometimes-limited availability of trees.

 

In Mexico, a purchase of a traditional pine tree is seen as a luxury commodity for a family. Most Mexicans either use small artificial trees named ‘arbolitos’ or gather a form of shrub from the countryside.

 

Due to the Christian faith being a minority in Asia, a lot of people who celebrate the season have to be inconspicuous with their festive ornaments.

 

Of the small percentage of Chinese who do celebrate Christmas, most erect artificial trees decorated with paper chains, flowers, and lanterns. Christmas trees are called ‘trees of light’.

 

It’s understandable to see why it would be difficult to display the ‘traditional’ elements of Christmas tree for those who live in hotter countries in December time. Many countries like Brazil and South Africa compensate for the lack of a natural winter wonderland by using materials like cotton to imitate snow on their tree. 

 

Tree-mendous Trivia

  • Christmas trees generally take six to eight years to mature. 
  • 100,000 people are employed in the Christmas tree industry. 
  • More than 1,000,000 acres of land have been planted with Christmas trees. 
  • 77 million Christmas trees are planted each year. 
  • 34 to 36 million Christmas trees are produced each year and 95% are shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree farms.
  • The best selling trees are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir, and White Pine.

What kind of tree are you getting and do you decorate yours with anything unusual? Tweet us at @IntlTimber – we always want to hear your thoughts. 

While we don’t stock Christmas trees, you won't want to miss out on our diverse range of other wood this winter. 

And if you're looking for quality timber to use in your festive projects this winter – don't hesitate to get in touch today.

Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons