(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 21, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments. We hope you enjoy it as we count down to Christmas.)
Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree
(in the original German)
Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit
Actually, I never really liked that Christmas carol as a child. It was great in Vince Guaraldi's jazzy cover arrangement in "Charlie Brown's Christmas," but not until I took German 101 in college did I start to understand that it's not really a song about a Christmas tree, it's a song about a fir tree. Tannenbaum doesn't mean Christmas tree at all, it means fir tree or evergreen. The song celebrates the fir's branches which are green whether it's summer and sunny or winter and snowy. So is our American custom of having one (or more) Christmas trees in the house a German one? Well, yes and no. Stick with me, and I'll tell you what I learned.
typical groomed and decorated live tree from a tree farm or plantation
People have been hating the short winter days and afraid of what they might mean for as long as there have been people. Even in places of the world that seem balmy and sunny year-round to me, like Egypt, ancient people were afraid that the sun had fallen ill when it appeared for a shorter and shorter length of time each day. When the sun recovered, they celebrated its recovery or rebirth by bringing the green fronds of date palms indoors as symbols of constant life, as these were always green.Meanwhile, ancient Romans knew that the winter solstice meant another spring, another harvest, and celebrated Saturn, the god of agriculture. This celebration involved decorating homes and temples with evergreen boughs. Celts also celebrated the winter solstice by decorating the entrances to houses with evergreen branches as a symbol of longer daylight hours returning. Ancient Scandanavians decorated with evergreens as a sign that the longest night had passed, and believe me, up there, the longest night can be 20 hours long, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board. People the world around seemed to have viewed the evergreen's year-round greenness as a sign of life, hope, and fertility for a long time.
How do we get to the Christmas tree? From the 11th through the 15th centuries, trees decorated with apples called "paradise trees" were used in Germany to illustrate the Biblical story of Adam and Eve for the illiterate populace. Eventually the faithful began bringing these trees into their houses on December 24, the feast day for Adam and Eve, according to the Virtual Museum of Canada. There is an actual historical record showing that in 1510, in Riga, Latvia, local merchants decorated a tree with flowers, danced around it in the marketplace, and then set fire to it (isn't that what we're all worried about happening with our own trees?).
The story goes that Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) himself, the German sixteenth century reformer of the Christian church, was staring through the branches of pine trees at the sky filled with stars one Christmas Eve. Eager to recreate the mystical experience for his wife and children, he cut down one little fir tree, brought it home, and attached small candles to the branches. It is not clear whether this beautiful story is a legend or fact, but by 1521 there was a royal Christmas tree at the court in Alsace, says the Virtual Museum of Canada. (Alsace is a border town which was then Germanic but is now part of France.) Since Martin Luther didn't marry until 1525, it doesn't seem like he could have been first in any case. Christmas trees, decorated with fruit, candy, cookies, paper or German glass ornaments were popular in France and Germany by the 18th century.
German blood has run in the veins of the British monarchy since King George I in 1714, but the British public was not fond of their Georgian rulers. Although the German-bred court in London had small Christmas trees (decorated with tinsel, glass ornaments and cookies and candy), the general populace in England did not emulate them. Not until young princess Victoria became Queen at age 18, did England and the British Empire begin to admire and copy the monarchy.
Victoria married her distant German cousin, Albert, and deliberately instilled German customs at the British court, like Christmas trees, to make him feel more at home. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had nine children together, and a drawing of their huge family Christmas tree was published first in the Illustrated London News in 1848, and then in Philadelphia's fashionable Godey's Lady's Book in 1850, according to The Christmas Archives.
Godey's Lady's Book illustration
of the British Royal family with their
Christmas tree on a table.
Queen Victoria was beloved by her subjects, the first British monarch in years to be so universally popular. Both British people and Americans imitated her German-style Christmas tree, which included presents underneath it. Often there were individual trees for each person in the family.
Another story says that the Hessian mercenaries whom the British redcoats had hired put up a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in Trenton, New Jersey, in the American Revolutionary War. Those German soldiers, so far from home, abandoned their guard duties to celebrate, says the Christmas Tree Farm Network. General George Washington attacked that night, and, well, the rest is history.
German immigrants had been bringing Christmas trees with them to their settlements in North America for years and years by the time Queen Victoria's tree made such a stir. German settlements in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and many others had Christmas trees decorated with homemade ornaments. In 1851 (the year after the Godey's Lady's Book debut), a farmer from upstate New York hauled two sledges filled with pine trees into New York City, and effectively founded the market for Christmas trees when he sold them all. By 1900, 20% of American families had Christmas trees.
The first Christmas tree farm was actually started in 1901 in New Jersey, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Through the Depression, nurserymen sold trees originally destined for landscape use as cut Christmas trees instead. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt grew Christmas trees on his estate on the upstate New York. Most trees sold today are grown on farms, ranches or plantations, as opposed to in the wild.
Early National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C.
People also decorate living trees outdoors, whether in their own front yards or at the White House. The first National Christmas Tree was erected by President Benjamin Harrison, in 1889. The White House has had a National Christmas Tree continuously every year since 1923, a living one since the 70s. And then of course there are Christmas trees in town squares, malls, Rockefeller Center in New York City, and the pine tree on the corner. The Christmas tree is a symbol of returning light and life in the darkness of winter.
For further discussion of the German part of Christmas tree history, see Larry Rettig's article Pelznickel, Kristkindl, and a Broomstick Tree.
For a fascinating contemporary discussion of Christmas trees vs. Christmas stockings, see this 1883 New York Times article.
All images are in the Public Domain, with the exception of the opening thumbnail of a decorated tree, for which I thank expert photographer DG member nutsfordaylily!