THE CHRISTMAS TREE. . .

so now you know!

The Christmas tree actually predates Christianity by centuries… yes centuries. Ancient Romans decorated trees with small pieces of metal during Saturnalia, their winter festival in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. As I previously wrote about, December 25th was chosen as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth and it took place the day after the Saturnalia celebration of December 17th -24th. Emperor Constantine did this around the year 390 to combine Christmas with the Saturn and Mithras celebrations and also with the cult of Sol Invictus, a form of Sunday worship that had come to Rome from Syria a century before.

In keeping with the tradition of combining Pagan, Christian and other religions during the latter part of the Roman Empire, the Saturnalia Trees gave way over time to erecting the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the Garden of Eden which was a simple evergreen tree. Over more time it developed into something a bit different. During the middle ages, an evergreen was decorated with apples and called the Paradise tree, as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve and was held on December 24th each year.

The modern Christmas trees appeared in the middle 1500’s. The trees were sold at local markets and set up in homes without any ornaments in the Strasbourg area of Alsace in 1531, which was then a part of Germany. The oldest record of a decorated Christmas tree came from a 1605 diary found in Strasburg. The tree was decorated with paper roses, apples and candies.


In Austria & Germany during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tops of evergreens were cut and hung upside down in a living room corner. They were decorated with apples, nuts and strips of red paper.

Tinsel was invented in Germany around 1610. Real silver was used at that time, and special machines were invented to pull the silver out into wafer thin strips for tinsel. Silver was durable, but tarnished quickly, especially with candlelight which was used at that time. Attempts were made to use a mixture of lead and tin, but this was heavy and tended to break under its own weight so was not so practical. So silver was used for tinsel right up to the mid-20th century when plastics took its place.

The first record of Christmas trees in America was for children in the German Moravian Church’s settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas 1747. Actual trees were not decorated, but wooden pyramids covered with evergreen branches were decorated with candles. The custom of the Christmas tree was introduced in the United States during the War of Independence by Hessian troops. An early account tells of a Christmas tree set up by American soldiers at Fort Dearborn, Illinois, the site of Chicago, in 1804.

Most other early accounts in the United States were among the German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania. Just as the first trees introduced into Britain did not immediately take off, the early trees introduced into America by the Hessian soldiers were not recorded in any particular quantity. Even so, it is known that the Pennsylvanian German settlements had community trees as early as 1747.

Decorations were still of a ‘home-made’ variety. Young Ladies spent hours at Christmas Crafts, quilling snowflakes and stars, sewing little pouches for secret gifts and paper baskets with sugared almonds in them. Small bead decorations, fine drawn out silver tinsel came from Germany together with beautiful Angels to sit at the top of the tree. Candles were often placed into wooden hoops for safety.

Somewhere around 1846 Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was credited with bringing the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal Family. Some historians state that in actuality Queen Charlotte, Victoria’s grandmother recalled that a Christmas tree was in the Queen’s lodge at Windsor on Christmas Day in 1800.

It is certain that in the Illustrated London News in 1846, an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children around a Christmas tree appeared. Unlike the previous Royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court immediately became fashionable – not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society.

The decorations were tinsels, silver wire ornaments, candles and small beads. All these had been manufactured in Germany and Eastern Europe since the 17th century. The custom was to have several small trees on tables, one for each member of the family, with those persons gifts stacked on the table under the tree.

In America, until this time, Christmas trees were considered a quaint foreign custom. America was so geographically large, that it tended to have ‘pockets’ of customs relating to the immigrants who had settled in a particular area. It was not until the telegraph communications really got going in the 19th century that such customs began to spread. Thus references to decorated trees in America before about the middle of the 19th century are very rare. But by 1850, the Christmas tree had become fashionable in the eastern states.

Meanwhile, in Germany, companies, like Lauscha, began to produce fancy shaped glass bead garlands for the trees, and short garlands made from necklace ‘bugles’ and beads. These were readily available in Germany but not produced in sufficient quantities to export to Britain or America. The Rauschgoldengel was a common sight. Literally, ‘Tingled-angel’, bought from the Thuringian Christmas markets, and dressed in pure gilded tin.

Mark Carr brought trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York in 1851, and opened the first retail Christmas tree lot in the United States. Franklin Pierce was the first president to introduce the Christmas tree to the White House in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children.

By the 1870’s, Glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Lauscha, in Thuringia (Germany). It became a status symbol to have glass ornaments on the tree, the more one had, the better ones status! Still many homemade things were seen. The British Empire was growing, and the most popular tree topper was the Union Jack (the nation’s flag). Sometimes there were flags of the Empire and flags of the allied countries. Trees became very patriotic.

The glass ornaments started being imported into America around 1880, where they were sold through stores such as FW Woolworth. They were quickly followed by American patents for electric lights (1882), (until this time candles were attached to tree branches – which resulted in a lot of fires!) and metal hooks for safer hanging of decorations onto the trees (1892). You can still find candle clips and tree candles in the German Christmas Markets.

The artificial Christmas tree was invented in the 1880’s in Germany, to combat some of the damage being done by so many native Fir trees being chopped for Christmas. The Christmas tree popularity died down somewhat in the UK after the death of Queen Victoria. In the 1930’s there was a revival of Dickensian nostalgia, particularly in Britain. Christmas cards all sported Crinoline ladies with muffs and bonnets popular in the 1840’s. Christmas Trees became large, and real again, and were decorated with many bells, balls and tinsels, and with a beautiful golden haired angel at the top.

Wartime England put a stop to many of these trees. It was forbidden to cut trees down for decoration, and with so many raids, many people preferred to keep their most precious heirloom Christmas tree decorations carefully stored away in metal boxes, and decorated only a small tabletop tree with homemade decorations, which could be taken down into the shelters for a little Christmas cheer.

The first national American Christmas Tree was lighted in the year 1923 on the White House lawn by President Calvin Coolidge. A tree from the National Christmas Tree Association has been displayed in the Blue Room of the White House since 1966. After World War II, the Christmas tree again became popular and its popularity has grown ever since to become the most recognizable Christmas symbol.

Well there you go my friends! Merry Christmas! Bless you all! So now go read this to someone else. So now you know!

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