The History of Christmas Trees
Evergreen fir trees have been used in the celebration of winter festivals, both pagan and Christian, for thousands of years.
It is not possible to date when fir trees were first used as Christmas trees in the traditional sense, but is is believed that the practice started one thousand years ago in Northern Europe. These early variations of the Christmas tree were a little different than the ones that we’re used to seeing today – it’s believed that they were hung upside down from the ceiling!
Some believe that the Christmas tree’s origins can be traced back to the 16th century when Martin Luther, a Protestant Christian reformer is said to have first added candles to an evergreen tree after he took a walk through a forest and looked up to the sky to see the stars shining through the branches of the trees. Evergreen trees were also used in pre-Christian winter rites, which we can see evidence of in stories such as Donar’s Oak and the tale of Saint Boniface and the conversion of German pagans.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica traces the use of trees as symbols even further back than the 16th century, stating that, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolise eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
The very first documented use of a tree at Christmas comes from Riga, Latvia, in 1510. The town square holds a plaque with the engraving (in eight different languages), “The First New Year’s Tree in Riga in 1510”. This first tree is believed to have been a Paradise Tree – these were wooden pyramids made to look like trees and used in plays that would be acted out in front of churches on Christmas Eve. In early church calendars the 24th December was known as Adam and Eve’s day, and these Paradise Trees were created to represent the Garden of Eden. A Paradise Tree would be paraded around the town before the play was due to begin.
Christmas trees wouldn’t arrive on our shores until the 1830s, becoming popular in 1841, when Prince Albert had a Christmas Tree installed at Windsor Castle.