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The History of the Christmas Tree: The German Christmas Tradition that Swept the World

Published by Winona Clattenburg

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Christmas time, the happiest time of the year for many, is filled with traditions dating back further than some may realize. One of the most central traditions to this holiday is the Christmas tree. Its origins date back to the seventh century and are still beloved today.

Earliest Origins of the Christmas Tree

In seventh century, a monk traveled from Crediton, Devonshire to Germany to spread the Christian gospel. He spent much of his time in Thuringia, a central location for Christmas tree and ornament production to this day. While there, this monk supposedly used the triangular fir tree native to Germany to illustrate the Holy Trinity. Christian converts in Germany then began referring to the tree as God’s Tree.

In the twelfth century, fir trees began being hung upside down from ceilings in central Europe as a sign of Christianity, but it was not until 1510 that the first Christmas tree was decorated in Riga, Latvia.

German Christmas Tree Industry

The mid-sixteenth century saw the birth of Christmas markets in German towns. Here, gifts and food were sold, along with gingerbreads and commemorative wax tree ornaments for customers to take home. These early trees were viewed in a Biblically significant context as comparable to the Paradise Tree in the Garden of Eden. They were decorated with food items and flowers.

Christmas Trees Arrived in England with the Georgian Kings

Christmas trees arrived in England with the Georgian kings, but because these German monarchs were unpopular, the trend did not catch on. The few residents of England who possessed Christmas trees were either German merchants or those who were friends with such merchants. These trees were different from ones used today in that every member of the family had a small table-top tree, under which their presents were placed.


Queen Victoria and the Christmas Tree

In 1846, London residents opened their London News to find an illustration of their beloved Queen Victoria, the German Prince Albert and their family standing around a Christmas tree. It was then that the tradition was truly adopted in England.

The earliest use of the Christmas tree in America was documented in 1747, although it is rare to find a reference to the trees prior to the nineteenth century.

What the Decoration of Christmas Trees Illustrates in History

The decoration of Christmas trees is indicative of the times. In the 1890s, it was popular to over-decorate trees. During war times, there were few trees because lumber was much too necessary to the war effort. The 1930s brought Dickens style nostalgia and big trees were once again popular. World War II kept precious family ornaments boxed in closets and post war, those same ornaments again saw the lights of Christmas. The mid-1960s’ modernist movement brought silver aluminum trees, while the 1970s saw a return to Victorian nostalgia.

The Commercialization of Christmas Trees

The commercialization of Christmas trees began in 1851 in the U.S. and President Franklin Pierce possessed the first White House Christmas tree in 1853. Around 1883, Sears, Roebuck & Company began selling artificial trees at the price of $0.50 for thirty-three limbs and $1.00 for a tree of fifty-five limbs. In 1901, the first Christmas tree farm was established by W. V. McGalliard in New Jersey. In 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association established the competition for the Grand Champion grower to present a Christmas tree to the first lady for the Blue Room of the White House. The first tree was presented to Lady Bird Johnson and the tradition continues today.

The evolution of the beloved Christmas tree has occurred over centuries and has withstood the test of time.

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