Christmas trees: their use, history, and decorations
What is a Christmas tree? During the Christmas season, which traditionally commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, people all around the world decorate trees - often a type of conifer (i.e. a cone-bearing tree), like a fir tree, a pine tree, or a spruce tree - with ornaments, lights, and other decor that represent the colors, symbols, and events of this sacred Christian holiday.
How many people in America and Europe get Christmas trees? In the United States, people buy approximately 35 million Christmas trees every December. In Europe, people buy approximately 55 million trees every December. This figure doesn't account for people who use artificial trees in their homes. Americans alone spend almost $2,000,000,000 on Christmas trees every year.
How old is the tradition of the Christmas tree? Modern Christmas trees, with their characteristic lights and ornaments, date back to Germany during the 15th and 16th centuries (more below). However, earlier cultures decorated trees, as well as their branches (e.g. wreaths and garlands), in order to symbolize sacred days and events.
A brief history of Christmas trees
Oak trees and mystery plays
What is the story of Donor's Oak and what does it have to do with Christmas trees?
Also known as "Jove's Oak," this tree was sacred to pagans in pre-modern Germany, who may have associated it with Norse mythology (i.e. oak was sacred to the god, Thor). When the Christian missionary Boniface arrived to spread the gospel in the 8th century, the tree was cut down to symbolize the defeat of the local gods. Tradition says that wood from the tree was used to build a church. Is this the origin of the Christmas tree? While there are similarities between it and some Christmas traditions today, such as a special tree and the Christian faith, there are important differences that raise serious questions. First, the tree in the story isn't a conifer, but an oak tree. Second, the tree symbolized local gods, who Christians wouldn't want to commemorate. Third, Boniface used wood from the tree, and not the tree itself, after it was cut down.
Are there other traditions that could better explain the origin of modern Christmas trees?
Yes. Many historians believe the modern use of the Christmas tree has its roots in Medieval mystery plays. These theatrical productions, which depicted well-known Bible stories, which were common in Europe between the 10th and 15th centuries, prior to the rise of the modern theatre. In the mystery plays, a tree was cut down and used as a stage prop to depict one of the most famous trees in the Bible - "the tree of paradise" - in the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, the prop tree was decorated with red apples in attempt to recreate Adam and Eve's temptation of the forbidden fruit. It is thought that trees eventually became decor in Christian homes as a symbol of the tree of paradise. And as a reminder of the lessons of the Garden of Eden, the tree was decorated with apples, which were eventually replaced by red ornamental balls.
The German influence
How did Christmas tree come to be used in Germany?
Christmas tree use increased during and after the Protestant Reformation. Historians note that at the time, German Protestants wanted to differentiate themselves from the common Christmas decor of Roman Catholicism, which was the "Christmas crib" (also known as a "creche" or a "nativity scene"). Additionally, the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, Martin Luther, commemorated Christmas with a tree. In fact, according to "The History of Christmas Trees" documentary on the History Channel, it was Luther who first added lighted candles to Christmas trees, which he did in order to represent Christ, who the Gospel of John says was the light of the world. For the next few centuries, Christmas trees were a sign of German culture to other Europeans as well as Americans. But that would soon change.
When did Christmas tree use begin to catch on in Europe and America?
In the 19th century, when English Queen Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert, the new family adopted the Christmas customs of his homeland, in her native England. When news spread of the famous couple's Christmas tree, and illustrations of it appeared in the local paper, many households followed their lead. Before long, a German Christmas custom became an English Christmas tradition. In the United States, Christmas trees became increasingly popular thanks to 19th century immigration. Trees were especially prominent in places that had significant numbers of German immigrants like Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
Why don't English-speakers sing "O Christmas Tree" correctly?
The German title to this Christmas song is "O Tannenbaum." Many English speakers assume that the title means "O Christmas tree," but it doesn't. "Tannenbaum" actually means "fir tree"; the German word for Christmas tree is "weihnachtsbaum."
What is the story behind Christmas tree decorations?
The first decorations to appear on Christmas trees were edible foods like apples, perhaps stemming from their use in Medieval mystery plays (see above). Over time, the foods became more festive, like candy canes and popcorn strings. Ornaments made of ceramics, glass, metal, and wood became part of the decorating tradition, perhaps because they lasted longer than the edible ones. These ornaments had shapes like stars and hearts. Following the tradition started by Martin Luther (see above), candles were used on Christmas trees. Stringing decor like popcorn (which may have led to stringing lights) and glass balls are both thought to have originated in Germany.
What is the origin of the tree-topper?
When Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert in the 19th century (see above), The Illustrated London News published a picture of the couple standing next to a Christmas tree that had an angel perched on top of it, symbolizing Gabriel's announcement to Mary and Joseph about the Christ child. As with their use of a Christmas tree, thousands of English people followed their lead with a tree-top.
Famous Christmas Trees
What is the story behind The Rockerfeller Center Christmas Tree?
Since 1933, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) has put up a Christmas tree at Rockerfeller Center in mid-town Manhattan in New York, New York. The tree usually lit in front of large crowds of people the week after Thanksgiving.
What is the story behind The National Christmas Tree?
Since 1923, the National Christmas Tree has been put up in the White House in Washington D.C. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to use the occasion to formally speak to the country, which is often a message filled with well-wishes for all Americans. In recent years, some have criticized this tradition citing the separation of Church and State.
What is the story behind the Vatican Christmas Tree?
Pope John II started the tradition of putting a Christmas tree in Saint Peter's Square in 1982. Christmas trees had been a tradition in his home country of Poland, but it wasn't yet a tradition at the Vatican. However, it has been an annual tradition there ever since. In 2004 John Paul II called it a symbol of Christ, saying the green life of the tree in in winter depicts the Christian's hope in a fallen world.
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1. "The History of Christmas Trees," The History Channel
2. "Special Christmas supplement edition," London News, published 23 December 1848