It's the focal point of nearly everyone's Christmas celebration. It's the one item people spend the most time trying to perfect. It's the primary monument that the family gathers around to really celebrate Christmas: the Christmas Tree. But where does it come from? What made people bring a tree into their homes and decorate it? Well the Christmas Tree has a very long history and it doesn't start in Rockefeller Center. Instead, we finds its origins in 15th century Europe, and once it's popularity caught on there was no stopping these decorative trees.
Ok, so the picture above isn't the original tree but the very first tree was set up many Christmases ago in 1441. The tree in the picture sits in the same town that the very first Christmas Tree was used. The use of the tree comes from a very oddly named group, The Brotherhood of Blackheads. The Brotherhood was a collection of bachelors living and working in Latvia. Now why would a group of single guys do this? Well, the Brotherhood first set up and decorated the tree at the Brotherhood's super secret hideout for their holiday celebration. It was on Christmas Eve that the tree was then moved to the Town Hall Square. During this party, the Brotherhood "danced around the tree in celebration." It wasn't until their Christmas celebration of 1584, that the tree was truly noticed. A local pastor claimed that "the young men went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced and then set the tree aflame." Basically, the Brotherhood established the use of a Christmas tree as a way to pick up chicks. Not only do we owe them thanks for the Christmas Tree but they might be the forefathers of mistletoe as well. So this was the birth of a tradition that lives worldwide today, but how did it spread from the Baltic area to the world? Well sit tight, grab some eggnog and get ready to find out how the Christmas Tree came to decorate homes all over the globe.
So who could be crafty enough to popularize the Christmas Tree? Well its the same group of people that modernize everything else they get their hands on: the Germans. The trees made their way from the Baltic area via church practices. Churches in Germany would call them "Paradise Trees". This influenced other parishioners who took the idea and put these trees everywhere else. The first, recorded personal use of a Christmas Tree comes from a Bremen Union Hall. It was decorated with "apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers," and it was set up for the workers children who would pick off the decorations as their presents. Imagine that today's version would have a tree decorated in Ipods, PS3s, jewelry and gift cards, it would be a chaotic free-for-all. The tradition then spread to the wealthy and upper class of German society, especially in the Protestant communities. As the 18th century rolled around the tree was then decorated with candles and garland. Eventually, the German Army used the trees in barracks and hospitals so it is no surprise that by the 19th century, the Christmas Tree was in every home in Germany. That simple tree from Latvia grew into a major Christmas practice in Germany and was about to take off like a V2 Rocket as it spread out from Das Vaterland.
So as the Christmas Tree went on a sleigh ride through German culture, the first Christmas Tree to be used outside of Germany and Latvia was in Canada in 1781. However, it wasn't set up by Canadians but by Brunswick troops stationed in Quebec. But it was from these small beginnings that the tradition reached the ruling classes. The first to set up a tree outside of Germany and German culture was by the Countess Wilhemine of Holsteinborg (it's in Denmark) in 1808. This was immortalized by Hans Christian Anderson in his 1844 piece, The Fir-Tree. In Vienna the first Christmas Tree was set up by Princess Henrietta of Nassau Weilberg in 1816. By 1840 the tradition began to branch out to France when the Duchesse D'Orleans first used one to celebrate the holidays. It wouldn't be until the Christmas Tree hit jolly ole England that it would spread world wide. Now how did it spread across the Chanel? Well by the holy matrimony of King George the III and his fraulein Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The first documentation of Christmas at Buckingham Palace came during 1832 when then Princess Victoria wrote in her diary, "Dear diary, it's Christmas and I am so bloody excited!" Well, that isn't really a direct quote but you get the idea. It wouldn't be until Victoria married Prince Albert, a German, that the tradition of the Christmas Tree spread world wide.
After the marriage, the tradition of the Christmas Tree spread throughout the British Isles faster then anywhere else. Now how could it? Well that perfect picture of Christmas above that's how. There was an image of the Royal Family published in Illustrated London News' December of 1848 edition, which is pictured above. This image was even released in an American publication in 1850, Godey's Lady Book, however Queen Victoria's crown was edited out to portray the ideal American Christmas. The issue was so popular, Godey's republished it for the next 20 years. It is from that image of the Royal Family that the idea of centerpiece for the American Christmas tradition of not only having a tree but decorating the crap out of it. But the Christmas Tree seems to have a more hidden history in America as there are several claims to be the first Christmas Tree prior to the images published by Godey's. The first claim was in 1777 during the Revolutionary War. Windsor Lock, Conn. was home to British and Hessian POW's and the Germans being held are reported to have set up a Christmas Tree while imprisoned. There are many other claims from Easton, Pa in 1816, Lancaster, Pa in 1821, Williamsburg, Va. in 1842 and Wooster, Ohio in 1847. Oddly enough all these claims are tied to German immigrants spending their first Christmas in America... Coincidence? I think not. However, it is Wooster, Ohio's August Imgard who is credited for establishing the Christmas Tree in America. He was reported to place a tree in his home, decorate his tree with candy canes and paper decorations and top it with a tin star. So from its humble beginnings in Ohio it became the main centerpiece for the American family Christmas. Today it is almost impossible to travel through the major cities and small towns of America and not see a Christmas Tree during the month of December.
The mother of all Christmas Trees is the Rockefeller Center Tree, but no one ever stops to wonder why we even use a tree. In every major city and small town across the globe there is some tree lighting ceremony to kick off the Holiday season. It is an amazing feat to see a tradition transcend so many generations but it is also important we remember the history of it. From modern times and the use of a tree on Christmas morning with the family gathered around. The Royal Family gathered and celebrating a new tradition. German workers gathered at their holiday parties with their families celebrating the season. And all the way back to the Brotherhood of Blackheads using the Christmas Tree to pick up chicks. We all use it and we all love being around it. The Christmas Tree is one of the great holiday traditions which should never be forgotten. It brings family's together from the minute it enters the home. It truly embodies the spirit of Christmas and has as long a history as Christmas itself. So now here it is, the week of Christmas, finish up your shopping and last minute preparations for December 25, but before the big day sit down by the tree, take in the sights of it, take a deep breath and relax, for the Christmas Tree represents all that is good and perfect during Christmas season. I'd like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.