Historical Hearts Blog Hop
Our modern Christmas tree tradition probably began in Germany in the 18th century, though some argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century. From Germany, the Christmas tree custom was introduced to England, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, around the 1830s and then more successfully by Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s German husband) during her reign.
An evergreen fir tree was used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Nobody is really sure when Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees but it probably began 1000 years ago in Northern Europe. Many early Christmas Trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains.
The English phrase “Christmas tree”, first recorded in 1835, came from the German words Tannenbaum (fir tree) or Weinachtenbaum (Christmas tree). The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship. At first, a figure of the Baby Jesus was put on the top of the tree. Over time it changed to an angel or fairy that told the shepherds about Jesus, or a star like the Wisemen saw.
Christian tradition associates the holly tree with the crown of thorns, and says that its leaves were white until stained red by the blood of Christ. Along with a Christmas tree, the interior of homes were decorated with plants, garlands, and evergreen foliage and in Victorian times, Christmas trees were decorated with candles to represent stars.
From Harpars Bazaar ‘The Christmas-tree is doubtless of German origin. Though in its present form it is comparatively of recent date, yet its pagan prototype enjoyed a very high antiquity. The early Germans conceived of the world as a great tree whose roots were hidden deep under the earth, but whose top, flourishing in the midst of Walhalla, the old German paradise, nourished the she-goat upon whose milk fallen heroes restored themselves.
Yggdnafil was the name of this tree, and its memory was still green long after Christianity had been introduced into Germany, when much of its symbolic character was transferred to the Christmas-tree. At first fitted up during the Twelve Nights in honor of Berchta, the goddess of spring, it was subsequently transferred to the birthday of Christ, who, as the God-man, is become the “resurrection and the life.”
The evergreen fir-tree, an emblem of spring-time, became the symbol of an eternal spring. The burning lights were to adumbrate Him who is the “light of the world,” and the gifts to remind us that God, in giving His only Son for the world’s redemption, conferred upon us the most priceless of all gifts.
This symbolism extended also to the most usual of Christmas presents, apples and nuts; the former being considered as an emblem of youth, the latter as a profound symbol of spring, while the “boy’s legs” relate to Saturn, who devoured his own children, and the Kröpfel to the thunder-stone of Thor.
Until within the present century the Christmas-tree was regarded as a distinctive Protestant custom. The Reformers, in order to separate themselves more completely from the Catholic Church, dispensed with its rites, ceremonies, and customs, and those of the Christmas holidays among the rest. But some German immigrants did celebrate the holiday with a decorated tree.
There are numerous references to Christmas trees in America, each competing to be first in its state or region, and a few lay claim to the 1700s. Whenever the name of the family setting up one of these early trees is known, it is a German-sounding name. But this quaint German custom might well have died out as immigrants assimilated had it not been for the influence of an English queen.
When Queen Victoria’s German-born husband and first cousin, Prince Albert, arranged for a fir tree to be brought from his homeland and decorated in 1841, it created a minor sensation throughout the English-speaking world, thanks to the newly important media: the magazine. Everyone knew about Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree.
A print of the royal family gathered about the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, then in Godey’s Lady’s Bookin 1850, and was reprinted again ten years later. The six-foot fir sits on a table, each tier laden with a dozen or more lighted wax tapers. An angel with outstretched arms poses at the top. Gilt gingerbread ornaments and tiny baskets filled with sweets hang by ribbons from the branches. Clustered around the base of the tree are dolls and soldiers and toys.
The Queen’s Christmas tree certainly caught the public’s imagination. It was not, however, the first German tree in England, as is commonly thought. Queen Victoria had seen one as a girl in 1832. The little princess wrote excitedly in her diary that her Aunt Sophia had set up two “trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed around the tree.”
And long before that, in 1789, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, the last king of America, sent to her native Meckelberg-Strelitz in northern Germany for a Christmas tree. The queen’s physician, Dr. John Watkins, described it as “a charming imported German custom, [with] bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits, and toys most tastefully arranged” on its branches. Charming it may have been, but it didn’t stick. More than three generations would pass before the custom took root in England and in America.
The Christmas trees that existed in America before the Queen Victoria media blitz seemed to have involved Moravians (now the Czech Republic), Alsatians (now France), or other German-Americans, and the custom had shown no sign of spreading beyond those narrow ethnic groups. The writer of an 1825 article in The Saturday Evening Post mentions seeing trees in the windows of many houses in Philadelphia, a city with a large German population. He wrote, Their “green boughs [were] laden with fruit, richer than the golden apples of the Hesperides, or the sparkling diamonds that clustered on the branches in the wonderful cave of Aladdin.”
Gilded apples and nuts hung from the branches as did marzipan ornaments, sugar cakes, miniature mince pies, spicy cookies cut from molds in the shape of stars, birds, fish, butterflies, and flowers. A woman visiting German friends in Boston in 1832 wrote about their unusual tree hung with gilded eggshell cups filled with candies.
Not until the mid-nineteenth century did Christmas trees start spreading to homes with no known German connection. But once Queen Victoria approved of the custom of a Christmas tree, the practice spread throughout England and America and, to a lesser extent, to other parts of the world, through magazine pictures and articles. Upper-class Victorian Englishmen loved to imitate the royal family, and Americans followed suit. Late in the century, larger floor-to-ceiling trees replaced the tabletop size.
To all our wonderful historical romance readers,
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Join the Historical Hearts for a weekend of Christmas revelry in the tradition of all good historical romances. Take a sneak peek behind the scenes of the grand houses and share some of the gossip about ‘them up there’ as well as forgotten traditions and favourite family recipes.
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