Earlier this evening, a couple hopped on our Clapham Junction bound train with a twelve foot Christmas tree in tow. An impressive feat in itself! What ensued next were a few extra elbow nudges, numerous giggles, and even more carol singing. Some people grumbled others joined in; all in all, it was a pretty festive train ride, to say the least. I guess what I’m getting at is: Christmas really is just around the corner, isn’t it? We’re about to decorate the fir tree at home… But why do we do this? What exactly are the origins of the Christmas tree?
A fir tree is not just for Christmas!
A puppy isn’t just for Christmas… and neither is a fir tree. A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the origins of the Advent Calendar. However, unlike this tradition, the use of fir trees actually predates the birth of Jesus.
The use of fir trees has long been associated with celebrating religious festivals and events: not just Christmas. The tree is associated with fertility and its evergreen nature was thought to ward off witches and bad spirits. In fact, the tradition of fir trees actually dates all the way back to the Roman era. During the religious festival of Saturnalia, Roman temples would often be filled with evergreen trees.
Not only did Saturnalia use fir trees, it was actually celebrated around the end of December! A festival for feasting, celebration and helping those less fortunate, gifts were exchanged and lots of food was consumed. People even dressed up in their nicest clothes and drank lots of wine… Sound familiar?
However, the similarities between Christmas and Saturnalia shouldn’t come as any surprise. When new religions are introduced in society, existing traditions are often melded with the new religion to maintain a sense of accessibility and familiarity within the new religion. This is probably what happened in the case of Christmas.
Origins of the Christmas Tree
So the fir tree was first associated with pagan festivals… but when was it actually used in association with Christmas? Well, the first recorded fir tree being used exclusively for Christmas celebrations finds its roots in 16th century Europe. Both Tallin in Estonia and Riga in Latvia claim that it is their country which came up with the concept of the Christmas tree. Whatever the case, the tradition quickly spread and was found in Germany by the end of the 1500s.
Both Tallin in Estonia and Riga in Latvia claim that it is their country which came up with the concept of the Christmas tree. Whatever the case, the tradition quickly spread and was found in Germany by the end of the 1500s.
But these early Christmas trees weren’t decked out with the candy canes and Christmas baubles we’d find them today. No, in medieval Europe, the earliest Christmas trees were hung upside down on chains suspended from the ceiling; this seems kind of terrifying and not at all festive!
Birth of the Modern Christmas Tree
Martin Luther, the famous protestant (and apparently one of my ancestors…), was said to have installed a Christmas tree in his home. This was around the birth of the modern Christmas tree as we know it today. When it comes to Christmas decorations, the shiny tinsel you sprinkle over your tree finds its origins in Germany.
By the 18th Century, wealthy Germans were bringing their fir trees inside and decorating them with fruit and nuts. As electricity hadn’t been invented yet, the trees were lit with candles; I can only begin to imagine that more than a few fires began as a result of this dangerous practice.
Sometime during the 19th Century, other wealthy noblemen and royals across Europe had adopted the Christmas tree. The tradition spread and ended up what it is today…