Though the words of the traditional carol refer to the fir tree, die Tanne, rather than to a Christmas tree, der Weihnachtsbaum, both the carol and the tree to which it refers are now an integral part of Christmas across the western world.
The willingness of the early Christian Church to adopt elements of Pagan culture in order to ease the conversion to Christianity is well documented and has been spoken of elsewhere in this blog. As with those other examples, the origins of the modern Christmas tree, reveal the same cycle of adoption, repression and resurrection, reflecting the growth and reduction in the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in central Europe and in Germany in particular.
The symbolic use of evergreens in mid-winter was prevalent in early cultures, with the use of trees, garlands and wreaths being prominent in ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Hebrew traditions, to symbolise eternal life and rejuvenation. In early European culture, the Roman festival of Saturnalia, celebrated in the days leading up to the winter solstice, is the most prominent example though many others existed throughout the continent and through Scandinavia.
As the Roman Catholic Church established itself within Europe, it sought to repress the earlier Pagan practices which were perceived as a threat to the Church's authority. Thus, the chroniclers tell the story of St Boniface, who is credited with the conversion of the German tribes, cutting down Donar’s Oak. Later folklore tells of how an evergreen tree grew in its place, its top pointing to the heavens and its triangular shape symbolising the Trinity but this is not in the chronicles. There are also references in medieval mystery plays, performed on 24th December, to the “Tree of Paradise” which was hung with apples, representing the Forbidden Fruit, and wafers, to represent the Eucharist. However, the first documented reference to a predecessor of the modern Christmas tree comes in c.1400, in the doctrine of a Cistercian order in Portugal which required that
“On the Christmas eve, you will look for a large Branch of green laurel, and you shall reap many red oranges, and place them on the branches that come of the laurel, specifically as you have seen, and in every orange you shall put a candle, and hang the Branch by a rope..”,
Other examples of similar traditions have been recorded in Estonia and Latvia, erected by a local order called the Brotherhood of Blackheads, who danced around them and then burned them but any connection between this and the Christmas message remains obscure.
The earliest examples of a connection between fir trees and Christmas come from Germany around the time of the Protestant reformation. The earliest recorded German example is a picture from 1521, which shows a tree being paraded through the streets with a man riding a horse behind it. The man is dressed as a bishop and may represent St. Nicholas. Another depiction dating from 1576, is to be found carved on the keystone of a house in Turckheim in Alsace, then a part of Germany. Anecdotally, the origins of the modern German tradition are attributed to Martin Luther who is said to have been walking through a forest of fir trees just before Christmas and to have seen the stars twinkling through the branches. The beauty of the stars is said to have reminded Luther that Christ came down from the heavens for the salvation of mankind and he was moved to take a tree into his house and decorate it with candles, as a reminder of the message of the Nativity.
Over the ensuing 200 years, the adoption of the Christmas tree mirrors the progress of the German reformation. Thus, in the largely Protestant towns of the upper Rhineland, Christmas trees became prevalent in the houses of upper-class Protestant families, as an alternative to the more Catholic Christmas cribs, whilst in the Catholic Lower Rhineland Christmas trees were largely eschewed as a Protestant tradition. Following 1815, the custom became more widespread owing to the Prussian officials who moved to the Rhineland following the Congress of Vienna and became an expression of Gemütlichkeit, especially for those away from their homeland. A decisive factor in its popularity was the German army's decision to place Christmas trees in its barracks and military hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War.
Throughout the rest of Europe, the tradition spread through the noble houses. It was introduced to Vienna in 1816 by Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg and to France by the Duchesse d’Orléans in 1840. The British connection with the House of Hannover meant that the Christmas tree appeared a little earlier in Great Britain. Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Streitz, the wife of George III, introduced one at a children’s party in 1800 and though the tradition did not spread much outside the royal family, Queen Victoria had one in her room as a child and her diary entry for Christmas Eve 1832 records that in the drawing room, there were “were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees...”
After Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1841 the Christmas tree became the fashion in the smart houses of London and an article in The Illustrated London News in 1848, describing the Christmas trees at Windsor Castle and carrying a picture of the main tree surrounded by the royal family meant that the custom spread. In fewer than ten years the presence of Christmas trees in better-off homes was widespread though a report from Berlin in 1858 contrasts the situation in Germany where "Every family has its own" with that of Britain, where Christmas trees were still the preserve of the wealthy or the "romantic".
The popular spread of the Christmas tree came through their appearance at public entertainments, charity bazaars and in hospitals and in 1906 a charity was set up to ensure that even poor children in London slums 'who had never seen a Christmas tree' would enjoy one that year. Anti-German sentiment after the Great War briefly reduced their popularity but by the mid-1920s the use of Christmas trees had spread to all classes and the Christmas tree has remained a fixture of Christmas ever since.