Winter is coming and the first signs of Christmas are beginning to appear. Christmas adverts are back on TV, shops are hanging up their decorations and blaring festive music as people buy gifts for their loved ones. As Christmas draws ever closer people will start to decorate their homes with one of the most recognisable symbols of this festive period, the Christmas tree. The tree in its current form has become such an integral part of the yuletide tradition that it is hard to believe that it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, the Christmas tree as we know it only really became popular in the Victorian era. However, throughout history evergreen plants have played an important role in winter festivals and as cultures and traditions have changed, so has the role of the Christmas tree.
The Christmas tree is something that we associate with Christianity. However, long before this religion emerged evergreen plants played an important role in ancient traditions. In many cultures, people would hang up evergreen boughs to keep away illness, evil spirits, ghosts and witches. Evergreen foliage was particularly significant as the winter solstice approached. Many different cultures believed that there was a sun god who would become ill every year and when he did winter would arrive. Once the sun god recovered from his illness and became stronger summer would return. The winter solstice on the 21st or 22nd December marked the beginning of that recovery. People would fill their homes with evergreen plants to remind them that life would triumph over death and things would begin to grow again.
The ancient Egyptians certainly believed this. They worshipped a sun god that they called Ra and would bring palm rushes into their homes at the solstice to celebrate life beating death. The Egyptians weren’t the only ancient people to do this. In fact, the Druids would decorate their temples with evergreen boughs to symbolise everlasting life. The Vikings also believed in a sun god, who they called Balder, and thought that evergreens were special to him. So even though these evergreen boughs are not the Christmas trees that we recognise today, the tradition of using greenery to celebrate during winter festivals is one that has endured.
The Early Christmas Tree
It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Christmas tree as we know it started to come into fashion. It is believed that this tradition began in Germany. Many devout Christians would bring a fir tree into their home on the 24th December, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve, and would decorate it. This tree was known as the ‘paradise tree’ and symbolised the Garden of Eden. The tree had originally been a prop in a medieval play about Adam and Eve and was decorated with apples. However, many Germans began to set up paradise trees in their homes and would decorate them with wafers (to represent the Eucharistic host) as well. Eventually, the wafers were replaced with biscuits of many shapes and sizes and candles would be placed on the tree as well.
At the same time that ‘paradise’ trees were appearing in German homes, wooden Christmas pyramids were also gaining popularity. These wooden pyramids would be decorated with evergreen foliage, Christmas figurines, candles and would also have a star. At some point during the 16th century, these two traditions merged and became the Christmas tree. However, this tradition was only really popular among Lutherans in Germany. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it became a widespread custom throughout Germany and in other countries.
A Very Victorian Christmas
In Britain, the Christmas tree only started to become a tradition during the mid 19th century. Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert, who was German, and she also had a German mother. As a result, the Royal Family did follow the German custom of bringing a tree inside on Christmas Eve and decorating it. Some even said that rather than having a servant decorate the tree Victoria and Albert would do it themselves. However, this custom did not gain widespread popularity in Britain until 1846, when a sketch of Queen Victoria and her family standing around a Christmas tree appeared in Illustrated London News. As a result of the image, Christmas trees grew in popularity and having one became very fashionable. Victorian trees were often heavily decorated and would feature toys, candles, cakes, sweets, small gifts and even strings of popcorn hung from the branches by paper chains or ribbons.
Christmas Trees Around The World
It was also during this period that the Christmas tree gained popularity in other areas of the world. In North America, Christmas trees had been introduced by German settlers as early as the 17th century. However, it was only during the 1800s it became a tradition and by 1870 many people in Britain and North America would decorate their tree using blown glass ornaments. In Europe during the 19th-century trees also became fashionable in Poland, Austria, Switzerland and even the Netherlands. In Japan and China, Christmas trees had been introduced by missionaries and were adorned with paper decorations. By the turn of the 20th-century Christmas trees had become a recognisable Christmas tradition with many different countries adopting it.
Christmas Trees Today
Nowadays, Christmas would not be the same for a lot of people if they did not have a tree. They have become a huge part of the Christmas tradition and have become one of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas. Christmas trees can be found throughout the world from Japan to Australia. While the tree in its current form was originally a very Christian tradition, they have since been adopted by many different cultures and faiths. They are still a key part in winter celebrations and their beauty brings much joy and happiness to people throughout the world.
Annie works for the Primrose product loading team mainly creating web pages and writing product descriptions. When not at her desk you can find her writing for The Independent, re-reading Harry Potter or out for a walk.