Where did it all start?
Christmas trees as we know them today originated in Germany, and almost certainly have their roots (ha) in pagan traditions. For millennia it has been customary for cultures around the world to bring evergreen boughs into the home when winter is at its deepest and darkest. For centuries before (and after!) Christmas trees were introduced to the UK in the nineteenth century we’ve been decorating our homes with wreaths and boughs of holly, ivy, mistletoe, and yew.
Good question! There are several reasons for the use of evergreen plants in December. Some traditions hold that evergreens are a reminder that, even though the world seems dark and cold and dead, it can still sustain life. They’re a cheering sight during the hardship of winter and reassure people that, however bad things seem, spring will return.
Wrapped up with this is the idea that certain evergreens – yew, for example – are potent protection against witches and evil spirits. The superstition runs that witches and dark forces are at their strongest during the depths of winter. Bringing yew boughs into the house was a way of keeping your home and family safe from their evil doings.
Ok, that makes sense. But why a whole tree?
True, there is a bit of a difference between popping an evergreen wreath on your front door and lugging a whole tree into the house. Quite why the Germans decided to take evergreen decoration that step further is a bit of a mystery. Was Germany particularly plagued with witches? Were the winters in the dark German forests that much more dreadful than everywhere else? Perhaps. To be honest, not even the Germans know why they started the tree thing, but there are a couple of theories.
I’ll start with the most tenuous – the St Boniface Lumberjack Theory.
The St Boniface lumberjack theory? You’ve not heard it? That’s a shame, because this story kind of puts the origins of the very first Christmas tree into the hands of a 7th century Brit.
St Boniface, born Willibrod (you can see why he changed the name) came from Crediton in Devon. During the course of his saintly travels he went to Germany as a missionary. Germany at that time was still full of pagan tribes, hiding out in the dark, dense forests of the region.
One tribe encountered by Boniface worshipped a particularly large oak tree. So, to prove that the Christian god was stronger than the oak (or something like that), Boniface chopped the poor old tree down. For some reason this totally convinced the tribe that Jesus was the real deal, and they converted on the spot. St Boniface was later to become the patron saint of Germany.
OK, the story has a tree in it. But so do loads of stories. What’s this one got to do with Christmas trees?
Well, depending on who you listen to, either a fir tree spontaneously shot up on the spot where the oak had stood (growing through the stump? Who knows. The myth is short on biologicstical details), or Boniface planted a fir tree in its place. The evergreen fir tree was symbolic of the eternal life promised to Christians, and the former pagans were so chuffed with this concept that they hung the fir tree with all their favourite bits of metal. And that was the first Christmas tree.
I told you it was tenuous! On to the next one: the Martin Luther Starlight Theory.
The same Martin Luther who started Protestantism?
That’s the one! Given that Martin Luther was so against opulence and excess it’s a bit surprising that he’s credited with a concept as gaudy as the Christmas Tree. But there you go.
The story is quite nice. No poor old oak trees die this time. Instead, Martin Luther goes for a late night stroll in the forest, and is struck by how pretty the stars look twinkling through the pine canopy. So, to recreate the effect, he fastens little candles to the boughs of a local pine. Everyone enjoys it so much that they carry on doing it forever.
Whether or not this tale is true, it is worth noting that the first records of Christmas trees in German homes appear during the sixteenth century – at around the time when Martin Luther was making a name for himself. Often, these proto-Christmas trees were referred to as ‘Paradise Trees’, which brings us to our third theory: Heathen Paradise Tree Theory.
That sounds like fun!
It is! And it’s perhaps the most credible theory we’ve got.
In pre-Reformation Germany, people considered Adam and Eve saints. They would mark their saints’ day on Christmas Eve. Adam and Eve Day (aka Christmas Eve – the conjunction of ‘Eves’ is a total coincidence by the way. Just another fun quirk of the English language) was a rambunctious affair in which people would do things like run around naked, eat things they shouldn’t and (most pertinently for our purposes) perform extravagent plays telling the story of Genesis.
The major centrepiece for these plays was a a tree which would act as the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil (you know, the one which grew that fateful Forbidden Fruit). The ‘Paradise Tree’ would be sumptuously decorated with all kinds of tempting and tasty things, including gingerbread ‘fruit’, jewellery, candles, and any shiny things the people could lay their hands on. Sound familiar?
Well, as the Protestant Reformation got underway, the clergy decided that the Adam and Eve day celebrations were worryingly indulgent. The trees came in for particular condemnation, as the priesthood thought that they were disturbingly close to heathen idols. So, the big plays stopped.
However, not wanting to lose the fun of playing with their Paradise Trees, people carried on the tradition secretly, by bringing personal ‘Paradise Trees’ into the privacy of their own homes. And voila! The Christmas tree was born.
OK. But how did this weird tradition get from Germany to the rest of the world?
That’s easy: Prince Albert.
Queen Victoria’s husband was German and he had a bit of a thing for Christmas. He insisted on following all the beloved Christmas traditions of his childhood with his new family in the UK. At that time, everyone aspired to be like the Royal Family so, when Victoria and Albert were seen having a cosy family Christmas around the weird German tree thing people shrugged, grabbed their axes, and followed suit.
For uncomfortable imperialistic reasons, Victorian Britain was pretty influential. Word about the new Christmas tradition soon spread – aided by the fact that German immigrants in the USA were doing the same thing. Writers like Charles Dickens and other proponents of Victorian family values helped to make Christmas (and Christmas trees) a central pillar of the Victorian domestic ideal.
While those Victorian values may not look quite so much fun with hindsight, the Christmas tree stuck in the public consciousness. And it’s still there today!
So, when you’re sweeping up pine needles in January, you can blame either St Boniface, Martin Luther, Adam and Eve, or Prince Albert. Take your pick!
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