Oh Christmas Tree!

Like most of our holiday traditions which originated in other places and times, the Christmas tree stands out as the most universal symbol this time of year, and has been adopted into many cultures.


In pre-Christian Europe, trees were part of similar traditions across the Baltic, including Germany. The first written record of a decorated Christmas tree is in Riga, Latvia, in 1510. Men of the city merchants’ guild decorated a tree in the main square with paper shapes, ribbons, dried flowers, and straw figures. They then danced around it before burning it, likely to scare away winter! Roses may have been used as an allusion to the Virgin Mary.

Today, the spot where that tree stood is commemorated in eight languages in a large slightly domed stone marker in the cobblestones of Riga’s city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1201 as a bishopric to expand Christianity north, German traders seeking river routes into present day Russia established it as the dominant trade port on the eastern Baltic Sea decades later, becoming part of the Hanseatic League. However, it was actually Germany who spread Christmas trees to the world!

Another mention is from 1530 in Alsace – then Germany, now France. “Eight shoe length” size trees were sold in the market and set up in homes. In the 14th and 15th centuries, evergreen boughs were also hung with apples to represent paradise, as props for the “miracle plays” performed in churches on December 24 to teach the Bible to an illiterate population.

One legend says that Martin Luther, the religious reformer, inspired by stars shining through fir trees, “set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came”.

By 1605, decorated Christmas trees were known in southern German parlours “… and hang there on roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.” The edible ornaments also led to them being called “sugartrees.”

By the 1700s, areas of Austria and Germany brought evergreen boughs home. These were hung from the ceiling and could be decorated with apples, gilded nuts and red paper strips. In that century, France recorded using candles as tree decorations too.

We all are familiar with the story of how Queen Victoria’s German consort brought the first Christmas tree to Britain in 1840. It seems, however, that the real credit belongs to Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III. She set up the first known English Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.

Queen Charlotte grew up in the German duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and brought with her the tradition of a single decorated yew branch in 1761 upon marriage. She continued the ritual as a public court event in a main room, decorating it and distributing gifts from it herself. While this alone created a buzz amongst the nobility, in 1800 she potted an entire tree loaded with baubles, tinsel, fruit and gifts for a special Christmas party for the children of the principal families in Windsor. It became all the rage in the upper classes, and flourished in the society children for decades. By the time of Prince Albert’s trees from Cobourg in 1840, they were not new to the aristocracy, but Victorian media illustrations brought them to the general public and “the rest is history”.


In Germany, the practice of candles continues  although today safer electric imitations are used! Growing up, my German/Viennese neighbours decorated with white and silver, a tradition I loved and still continue to this today. It included tinsel (not garlands), and special foil and tissue paper wrapped candies. Homes may not necessarily follow a colour theme, though. Glass blowing became known in Germany by the late 16th century, and edible food was replaced with glass replicas by about 1850, also exported abroad. German tradition calls for the tree to be decorated for Christmas Eve, after which the doors are opened to the children for gifts brought by the “Christ Child”. It is not taken down until after Epiphany on January 6.

Today, an important source of sophisticated Christmas glass ornaments is Poland. Polish urban homes began the tradition of Christmas trees in the 19th century, and the early 20th century in rural villages. Besides balls, it is decorated with a large number of apples, sweets, nuts in wrappers symbolizing harvest and fertility, as well as cookies, and straw stars. Like Germany, the tree is decorated on Christmas Eve. In my own Polish family tradition, the topper resembles a church steeple. No food is eaten until the first star appears in the night sky, and the meal features fish, and twelve dishes. An extra place at the table is set to welcome a wandering stranger who should not celebrate alone. The meal is started with the family sharing the “oplatek” wafer (like church communions) and wishing each other the best. Gifts are also opened Christmas Eve after the meal.

In France, Maria Leszczyńska, the Polish wife of King Louis XV, brought a Christmas tree to Versailles, although it did not catch on. Nor did it in the 1830s, when the King Louis-Philippe’s wife, Duchess Helen Louise of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, set up a Christmas tree in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. However, after the Franco Prussian War in 1870, refugees from the regions of Lorraine and Alsace, brought the German tradition, and by the 1930s trees were established in French homes. Like elsewhere, natural and edible decorations like apples, candies, dried cakes in the shape of characters, nuts, pine cones, dolls and ribbons and coloured papers shaped like flowers were used. Legend talks of a drought in 1858 resulting in little fruit, but a Lorraine glassblower imitated their shape creating gorgeous baubles. Christmas Eve a midnight mass is attended, and the meal eaten afterwards.

In Italy, Queen Margherita, who came to the throne in 1878, introduced the northern tradition of Christmas trees. Yes, the same queen after whom a pizza is named! However, the tradition wasn’t universally adopted until about the 1960’s. Decorations included twine, oranges, clementines, candies, lanterns and candles, and coloured glass. Another tradition was to hang tangerines until the 25th, perfuming the house until savoured on the 25th. Traditionally, the tree is put up on Dec. 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), and today’s decorations are like everyone else’s. However, ‘La Befana’ gives gifts on the eve of Jan. 5, Epiphany.


Modern trees now take on any decorative colours and themes desired by the homeowner. Food, travel, animals, sports, nature or any other theme, or lack of one, in addition to lights, glass balls and ornaments are common.

Many families like to choose and cut down their own tree in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Farms often offer horse-drawn sleighs or even large dogs to help you bring it out. A thermos or mug of hot chocolate would not go amiss! We used to make a day of it with our neighbours, take the dog, and enjoy a hot lunch together afterwards. A local tree lot works well too! Local communities and community groups will feature festive tree lighting nights too.

It all goes back to what our ancestors intended: celebrating this time of year with those for whom we care.


Author: LivingSpaces

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1 Comment

  1. Great article and thorough research. Thank you

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