The History of Christmas Trees
For thousands of years both Christians and pagans have used branches of the evergreen fir tree to decorate winter celebrations. In Roman times the branches were used to decorate temples for the festival of Saturnalia which was celebrated on the 17th of December and lasted for 7 days. Pagans used branches of fir trees to decorate their homes or placed cherry or hawthorn branches in pots indoors in the hope that they would flower in the warmer air.
Christians used fir branches as a symbol of everlasting life and early modern trees were often topped by a figure of the baby Jesus rather than an angel.
The earliest recorded instances of whole trees being used date back to about 1000 years ago in northern Europe where trees were hung upside down from chandelier chains.
Sometimes trees were carried from house to house rather than being displayed in a home.
Pyramids of wood decorated with apples and candles were sometimes used in lieu of a tree, thought to have come from German Paradise trees which were used to celebrate Adam and Eve Day on the 24th of December and represented the Garden of Eden. A Paradise Tree was often paraded around the town as a way of advertising local plays featuring bible stories for those unable to read.
The first documented record of a tree used to celebrate Christmas and New Year is in Tallin, Estonia in 1441. The tree was erected in the town square by the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a group of unmarried local merchants and ship owners. The Brotherhood sang and danced around the tree before setting it aflame.
In Germany, early Christmas Trees were decorated with apples, gingerbread, nuts, pretzels, paper flowers and candles to represent stars. Other ornaments included strips of beaten silver and small glass ornaments similar to decorations used today.
The first trees started appearing in Britain in the 1830s but it wasn’t until Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, erected a tree in Windsor Castle in 1841 that the idea really took off in western countries.
Christmas Trees have also had their hazards however. In 1885 a Chicago hospital burned down after catching fire from Christmas candles and it was not an uncommon occurrence in private homes. In 1895 American Ralph Morris invented electric lights as a way of making trees safer, but the tradition of using candles still exists in many parts of Europe.