One cold winter’s night, Martin Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas.
Long before Christianity, however, people in the Northern Hemisphere used evergreen plants to decorate their homes to celebrate the Winter Solstice. This was celebrated by the Egyptians, the Celts, the Vikings and the Romans, who decorated their homes and temples with green palm rushes or evergreen boughs in honour of their gods and to symbolise everlasting life.
The modern tradition of decorating trees indoors began in Germany in the 16th century. Open-air plays, telling the story of creation, were performed on Adam and Eve day, where the Garden of Eden was symbolised by a ‘paradise tree’ hung with fruit. The church banned these practices, considering them acts of heathenry, so people collected evergreen branches or trees and brought them, secretly, into their homes. On these, families would hang lit candles, gingerbread, gold covered apples, roses made from coloured paper, wafers and sweets.
This eventually reached the shores of the United Kingdom, when Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, set up the first known British tree in 1800. She held a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor and set up a yew tree in the middle of the drawing-room, illuminated by small wax candles, and decorated with baubles, fruit and presents. Christmas trees then became fashionable in English upper-class circles, where they formed the focal point at children’s gatherings.
It wasn’t until half a century later, that the tradition took hold. In 1840, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg. Each year, magazines would describe the royal Christmas tree and print illustrations of the Royal Family around it, popularising the custom of setting up trees, which became commonplace in British homes.
Over the Atlantic, in the 1880s, Woolworth brought the magic of Christmas tree decorating into American homes. After a visit to Europe, F.W. Woolworth began importing holiday ornaments from Lauscha, Germany, the small village where hand-blown glass ornaments originated.
Response to the affordable, miniature glass toys was tremendous. More than 250 million ornaments were being imported to the United States from Germany, Japan and Czechoslovakia. But, as war broke out, it became difficult to export ornaments from Germany. In 1939, the American company Corning began producing ornaments on a larger scale, using a machine originally designed to produce glass bulbs.
Nowadays, in the U.S.A., 35 million Christmas trees are sold annually, with an additional 10 million artificial trees, and 300 million Christmas trees are grown in farms around the world.
So, each Christmas, as you decorate your tree, you can recall the origins of this festive custom and delight your family with stories full of holiday spirit.