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Derek Coleman: Christmas tree has many and varied roots

Dec. 07, 2012 @ 01:26 PM

This past weekend we got our Christmas tree out of the attic and decorated it.  

Doing this in November is still something I am getting used to because, although we put trees up in England, we never did it this early. Occasionally, there would be a house with Christmas decorations at the beginning of December, but by far the majority of people, myself included, waited until shortly before Christmas Day.

Having a decorated tree is a very old tradition. It can be traced back to 16th century Germany but evergreen trees were common in winter rites celebrated by the ancient Egyptians, the Chinese and the Hebrews long before the Christian era. The worshipping of a sacred tree also appears in many European pagan societies and was retained after their conversion to Christianity.  

As we get to the medieval era we find people performed what were called “mystery plays” on Dec. 24 to celebrate the name day of Adam and Eve.

 These plays always included a Paradise Tree that was hung with apples and wafers. Later people adopted the idea and took the trees into their homes around Christmas time.

Christmas trees in a form we might recognize first appeared in the mid-1400s  in guild halls in what is modern day Estonia. Here they were hung with treats for apprentices and children to enjoy.  

A chronicle from 1584 still exists in which Pastor Balthasar Russow tells of setting up a decorated evergreen tree in the market place at Christmas. Apparently young men and girls would sing and dance around this before setting it on fire.

After the coming of Protestantism and the Reformation in Europe, upper-class Protestant families adopted the tree as a Christmas symbol because they did not want to use the Catholic Christmas cribs, and this was the beginning of the modern tradition.  

As the 19th century dawned, Christmas trees were enjoyed by the nobility and royal houses of Europe. They appeared in the royal palace in Vienna in 1816 and were introduced to France by the Duchess of Orleans in 1840.  

The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy-tale about a Christmas tree in 1844 and was told that the first Danish Christmas tree was introduced as early as 1804.

 It was the wife of Mad King George of Revolutionary War fame who brought the Christmas tree to Britain, although for a long time the tradition was restricted to the royal family. By 1848, Queen Victoria was on the throne and her husband was a German Prince, Prince Albert.  

The young queen was very popular and when a drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the Illustrated London News, the idea immediately caught on and was adopted by many fashionable families.

In December of 1850 the drawing crossed the Atlantic, was adapted to make the royal couple look ‘more American’ and appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was published in Philadelphia.  

This started a trend but the Christmas Tree was already here. As far back as  1781 the Brunswick General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, held a Christmas party in Canada around a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits. Despite this, the Godey print was widely circulated and spread the idea of the Christmas Tree throughout the country.

Whilst the Queen Victoria picture popularized the tradition, several cities lay claim to having the first Christmas Tree in the United States much earlier.  

Windsor Locks, a town in Connecticut, claims that a Hessian mercenary prisoner erected a tree there in 1778 while Easton, in Pennsylvania, say immigrants from Germany put up a tree in 1816 and a diary entry in 1821 notes one in Lancaster, Pa.  

Wooster, Ohio, does not claim to have had the first tree but in 1847 one of its inhabitants, August Imgard, a German immigrant had a star made for a tree he cut and then decorated it with candy canes. Today the National Confectioners Association officially recognizes Imgard as the founder of the tradition of decorating our trees with candy canes.

Christmas trees have come a long way since the days when our ancestors tied apples to them. Nowadays we have artificial trees, lights, fiber optics, all sorts of baubles, tinsel and other decorations. Gone are the days when we fixed candles to a real, resin-filled pine tree and took the risk of burning our house down around our ears and perhaps in some measure it’s the increased safety of today’s trees that encourages us to put them up so early.  

Whatever the reason, it’s a tradition I like, particularly so this year because my brother, Keith came to visit from England and helped to decorate our tree. It was good to see him and every time I look at that tree, sitting above a pile of brightly wrapped gifts during this Christmas season, I’ll remember his visit and smile.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.