Uwe Eduard Schmidt, Freiburg, Germany
History of the Christmas tree
Ritual tree worship dates back to pre-Christian times. Back then, decorated evergreen trees were seen as a symbol of life and fertility and worshipped around the winter solstice. In the Roman era, New Year’s customs included placing branches and deciduous trees in heated rooms to force them to bloom. These customs have evolved over the years, with the blossoms replaced by candles to become today’s Christmas tree, a symbol of gift giving and light.
Fir branches as Christmas decoration were first recorded in the Alsatian town of Bergheim in 1369. The first report of a Christmas tree dates back to 1465. In the German city of Freiburg, the local bakers’ guild donated a tree decorated with gifts that the master bakers would then shake on New Year’s Day, showering presents for the poor and needy. Christmas trees also surfaced in the mid-17th century in the royal court of the Electoral Palatinate in Heidelberg in the form of a decorated box tree with candles. The use of a spruce as a Christmas tree is first mentioned in Berlin in 1755. Later, this custom would become commonplace throughout Protestant regions of Prussia. In contrast, nativity scenes and the practice of giving gifts on St Nicholas Day remained the tradition in Catholic regions until the late 19th century. Both coniferous and deciduous trees were popular as Christmas trees (Image 2).
This drawing comes from Wandsbek Castle, near Hamburg, Germany, and dates back to 1796. It is the oldest preserved depiction of a conifer (spruce) decorated with lights being used as a Christmas tree (Image 3).
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Christmas tree spread from Germany to the rest of the world. Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha introduced the custom at the English royal court in 1837. In France, a Catholic country, a Protestant princess from Mecklenburg helped make the Christmas tree socially acceptable. Henriette of Nassau-Weilburg, a Protestant princess, brought the custom to Vienna’s Hofburg in 1817, and Bavaria’s Prince Otto introduced the Christmas tree to Greece in 1833. And thanks to German emigrants, Christmas trees soon started showing up all over the world.
Christmas trees today – still in high demand
In Germany, Christmas trees still remain wildly popular to this day. Every year, Germans set up some 23 million Christmas trees in their homes. The choice to go with a spruce, silver fir, Nordmann fir, pine or any other type of coniferous tree is a matter of personal taste, finances and ecological preferences. Natural Christmas trees usually come from commercial Christmas tree farms, forest thinning or other appropriate distribution areas (such as under high-voltage power lines) and do not destroy forests. In contrast, Christmas trees that come from countries where sustainable forestry is not practised or have been shipped over long distances are not environmentally friendly.