History of Christmas Tree
A Christmas tree is a decorated tree, usually an evergreen conifer such as spruce, pine, or fir or an artificial tree of similar appearance, associated with the celebration of Christmas.
The custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany (where it is today called Weihnachtsbaum or Christbaum or “Tannenbaum”) with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly 15th century, in which devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. It acquired popularity beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century, at first among the upper classes.
The tree was traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts, or other foods. In the 18th century, it began to be illuminated by candles which were ultimately replaced by Christmas lights after the advent of electrification. Today, there are a wide variety of traditional ornaments, such as garland, tinsel, and candy canes. An angel or star might be placed at the top of the tree to represent the archangel Gabriel or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
The first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is in town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, in the year 1510. In the square there is a plaque which is engraved with “The First New Year’s Tree in Riga in 1510”, in eight languages. The tree might have been a ‘Paradise Tree’ rather than a ‘real’ tree. Not much is known about the tree, apart from that it was attended by men wearing black hats, and that after a ceremony they burnt the tree. This is like the custom of the Yule Log.
A picture from Germany in 1521 which shows a tree being paraded through the streets with a man riding a horse behind it. The man is dressed a bishop, possibly representing St. Nicholas.
In 1584, the historian Balthasar Russow wrote about a tradition, in Riga, of a decorated fir tree in the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”. There’s a record of a small tree in Breman, Germany from 1570. It is described as a tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers”. It was displayed in a ‘guild-house’ (the meeting place for a society of business men in the city).
The first first person to bring a Christmas Tree into a house, in the way we know it today, may have been the 16th century German preacher Martin Luther. A story is told that, one night before Christmas, he was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful, that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. Some people say this is the same tree as the ‘Riga’ tree, but it isn’t! The Riga tree originally took place a few decades earlier. Northern Germany and Latvia are neighbors.
Another story says that St. Boniface of Crediton (a village in Devon, UK) left England and travelled to Germany to preach to the pagan German tribes and convert them to Christianity. He is said to have come across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young boy while worshipping an oak tree. In anger, and to stop the sacrifice, St. Boniface is said to have cut down the oak tree and, to his amazement, a young fir tree sprang up from the roots of the oak tree. St. Boniface took this as a sign of the Christian faith and his followers decorated the tree with candles so that St. Boniface could preach to the pagans at night.