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Decorations on a Christmas tree

The true origin of the Christmas tree: A festive history


Let’s face it: chopping down a tree, propping it up in your living room and covering it in shiny plastic decoration is a fairly peculiar thing to do.

So just why do we do this every Christmas? How did a TV cartoon utterly transform Christmas tree sales in the US? And why does Norway give London a festive spruce every year?

The legend of the axe-wielding saint

The use of evergreens in seasonal celebrations goes back to pre-Christian societies. For example, the Egyptians would decorate their homes with palm leaves to mark the winter solstice, while early Romans put up trees for the December festival of Saturnalia.

But what about the link between trees and Christmas? According to a popular legend, the man to thank is St Boniface: an English Benedictine monk dubbed the Apostle of Germany thanks to his work spreading Christianity there in the 8th century.

As the story goes, Boniface came across an oak tree dedicated to the god Thor, which was a place of human sacrifice for a Germanic pagan community. Appalled by this blasphemous spectacle, Boniface took an axe to the tree and then pointed out a young fir tree to the watching pagans. He declared it to be their new holy tree and a symbol of the Christ child with leaves pointing to Heaven.

This episode has long been held up as the origin story of the Christmas tree. However, the original account found in an 8th century text on Boniface’s life makes no mention of any fir tree. The saint simply chops down the tree and converts the pagans to Christianity.

The stuff about human sacrifices and a fabled fir actually comes from a short story written by 19th century American author Henry Van Dyke. His account, titled The First Christmas Tree, has taken on the status of a modern folk tale and has helped enshrine St Boniface as the father of the Christmas tree.

The true origin of the Christmas tree?

It’s widely believed that Christmas trees owe their existence to the medieval mystery plays which dramatized Bible stories for a largely illiterate public. One of the most popular was the ‘paradise play’ about Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden. Its key prop was an evergreen tree decorated with apples, which represented the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Over time, as author Bernd Brunner writes in his book Inventing the Christmas Tree, the tree of paradise began to ‘transcend the religious context of the play and move toward a role in the Christmas celebrations of the guilds’.

These guilds were various merchant associations in Europe, including the Fraternity of Baker’s Apprentices of Freiburg in Germany which erected a Christmas tree in 1419. Decorated with apples, gingerbread and other treats, this is one of the earliest known Christmas trees in the historical record.

The practice of decorating trees in homes became more widespread following the Protestant Reformation of the 16 century. Indeed, there’s even a Boniface-like legend that Martin Luther – the great pivotal figure of the Reformation – invented the idea of decorating Christmas trees with candles, to simulate a starry night sky.

The picture that changed everything

Christmas trees became even more popular thanks to the cultural influence of the British Royal Family. It was Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, who first brought the Christmas tree to the royal household in December 1800. Decades later, Prince Albert continued the tradition following his marriage to Queen Victoria.

The true milestone came in 1848 when the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the Queen, Prince Albert, and their family standing around a lavishly decorated tree. This really spurred widespread public interest in Christmas trees, not only in Britain but in the United States as well. There, a version of this illustration with the Queen’s tiara removed to make it more ‘American’, was published in a lifestyle magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, helping popularise Christmas trees in households across the Atlantic.

The rise and fall of aluminium trees

Skyrocketing demand for Christmas trees led to the first artificial versions being manufactured in Europe in the 19th century. Cut to the late 1950s, and garish, shiny aluminium trees with foil needles became a sensation in the United States. Decked out with rotating colour wheels that projected lights through the spangly, silvery branches, these reflected a widespread fashion for all things futuristic during the ‘space age’.

But then, in 1965, the Peanuts cartoon strip was brought to television for the very first time in A Charlie Brown Christmas. An instant holiday classic, the cartoon lightly mocked aluminium trees for being un-Christmassy and symbolising the commercialisation of the season.

After this one TV special, sales of aluminium trees dropped off a cliff. As journalist David Murray later wrote: ‘It's hard to imagine a children’s television show more directly responsible for the death of a consumer product line than A Charlie Brown Christmas.’

The annual thank you trees

One of the greatest Christmas tree traditions is Norway’s gifting of a vast tree to the UK every year. The annual tradition of transporting a tree from Norwegian forests to Trafalgar Square in London dates back to 1947, and is Norway’s way of saying thanks for the support Britain provided during World War Two.

The capital isn’t the only beneficiary of an annual Norwegian tree. Since 1949, Newcastle has received a towering tree, from the twinned city of Bergen. Again, as a token of gratitude for the allyship shown during the dark days of war.