Myth #73 Revisited: The Christmas tree is an old German tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.

December 7, 2013
Strasbourg, from a 1492 text

This time of year, most museums and historic sites put up a Christmas tree which they endeavor to make relevant by decorating it to a certain date–a Victorian tree, a Civil War tree, or a 1940s tree, for example. Usually a docent or placard will say something like, “The Christmas tree was an old German tradition with roots in the Middle Ages,” or, “. . . with roots in the pagan festivals that dated back to the time of ancient Rome.” There is no evidence for either statement. No records from the Middle Ages or earlier mention or portray a Christmas tree.

Some cite the old tradition of a paradise tree as a plausible ancestor to the Christmas tree, but the link sounds weak to me. Judge for yourself: The paradise tree was a standard stage prop in one of the popular religious plays (called mystery plays), the one about Adam and Eve. It was hung, appropriately enough, with what passed for red apples. Although it would seem an oxymoron, December 24 was, in those years, commonly celebrated as Adam and Eve’s birthday—thus their association with Christmas. Those who see the paradise tree as the precursor to our Christmas tree claim, with some logic if no proof, that the apples evolved into our round ornaments. 

The earliest hint of the Christmas tree custom can be found in 1561 in a sternly worded Alsatian (German) prohibition that forbade anyone to “have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes’ length.” Whether this was a fire precaution, a conservation measure, a religious prohibition, or something entirely different, we will probably never know, but authorities wouldn’t have passed a law against excessive Christmas trees if people hadn’t been putting them in their homes. A few decades later in 1605, one year before the Jamestown adventurers sailed to Virginia, the first description of a decorated Christmas tree shows up–also in Alsace. “At Christmas they set up fir-trees in the parlors at Strasbourg and hang roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, &c.”

The custom spread slowly among wealthy, upperclass Germans—it was certainly not common in average homes. Nor was it popular with everyone. One German minister in Strasbourg deplored the frivolous practice: “Among other trifles with which the people often occupy the Christmas time more than with God’s word, is also the Christmas or fir tree, which they erect in the house, and hang with dolls and sugar and thereupon shake and cause to lose its bloom. Where the habit comes from, I know not. It is a bit of child’s play . . . Far better were it for the children to be dedicated to the spiritual cedar tree, Jesus Christ.” 

The Christmas tree custom originated in the German Rhineland (although Strasbourg is now on the France side of the border), probably in the 1500s. It may be older than that, but the proof is lacking. (Claims about Latvia or Estonia having the first documented Christmas tree in 1510 or thereabouts are hard to verify; even if they prove solid, the premise remains the same, as these were Germanic people too, especially in the Baltic port cities.) 

medieval Strasbourg

Myth # 74: The Christmas tree tradition was brought to America by the German immigrants.

December 24, 2011

Well, yes and no. Ironically, the German Christmas tree came to America from England, courtesy of an English queen.

The Christmas tree is a German tradition that can be traced back to the 1500s to Strasbourg, which is now part of France. (See Myth #73)  But it was a minor tradition confined to the Alsace region that did not spread to the rest of Germany until after 1750. German-speaking immigrants had been coming to America in significant numbers since the late 17th century. Many came from parts of Germany where the decorated tree custom was unknown. Many did not celebrate Christmas at all, for religious reasons (like the Puritans in New England). So, not all German immigrants were aware of the Christmas tree custom, and some of those who were aware of it opposed all celebration of Christmas. 

But some German immigrants did celebrate the holiday with a decorated tree. There are numerous references to Christmas trees in America, each competing to be first in its state or region, and a few lay claim to the 1700s. Whenever the name of the family setting up one of these early trees is known, it is a German-sounding name. But this quaint German custom might well have died out as immigrants assimilated had it not been for the influence of an English queen.

When Queen Victoria’s German-born husband and first cousin, Prince Albert, arranged for a fir tree to be brought from his homeland and decorated in 1841, it created a minor sensation throughout the English-speaking world, thanks to the newly important media: the magazine. Everyone knew about Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree. A print of the royal family gathered about the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, then in Godey’s Lady’s Bookin 1850, and was reprinted again ten years later. The six-foot fir sits on a table, each tier laden with a dozen or more lighted wax tapers. An angel with outstretched arms poses at the top. Gilt gingerbread ornaments and tiny baskets filled with sweets hang by ribbons from the branches. Clustered around the base of the tree are dolls and soldiers and toys.

The queen’s Christmas tree certainly caught the public’s imagination. It was not, however, the first German tree in England, as is commonly thought. Queen Victoria had seen one as a girl in 1832. The little princess wrote excitedly in her diary that her Aunt Sophia had set up two “trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed around the tree.” And long before that, in 1789, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, the last king of America, sent to her native Meckelberg-Strelitz in northern Germany for a Christmas tree. The queen’s physician, Dr. John Watkins, described it as “a charming imported German custom, [with] bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits, and toys most tastefully arranged” on its branches. Charming it may have been, but it didn’t stick. More than three generations would pass before the custom took root in England and in America. 

Once the royal seal of approval had been stamped solidly on the Christmas tree, the practice spread throughout England and America and, to a lesser extent, to other parts of the world, through magazine pictures and articles. Upper-class Victorian Englishmen loved to imitate the royal family, and Americans followed suit. Late in the century, larger floor-to-ceiling trees replaced the tabletop size. 

The Christmas trees that existed in America before the Queen Victoria media blitz seemed to have involved Moravians (now the Czech Republic), Alsatians (now France), or other German-Americans, and the custom had shown no sign of spreading beyond those narrow ethnic groups. The writer of an 1825 article in The Saturday Evening Post mentions seeing trees in the windows of many houses in Philadelphia, a city with a large German population. He wrote, Their “green boughs [were] laden with fruit, richer than the golden apples of the Hesperides, or the sparkling diamonds that clustered on the branches in the wonderful cave of Aladdin.” Gilded apples and nuts hung from the branches as did marzipan ornaments, sugar cakes, miniature mince pies, spicy cookies cut from molds in the shape of stars, birds, fish, butterflies, and flowers. A woman visiting German friends in Boston in 1832 wrote about their unusual tree hung with gilded eggshell cups filled with candies. 

Not until the mid-nineteenth century did Christmas trees start spreading to homes with no known German connection. In Virginia, Judge Nathaniel Beverley Tucker adopted the custom after a German friend introduced him to the Christmas tree in 1842. Robert E. Lee’s children enjoyed a tabletop tree at their quarters at West Point, NY, in 1853 when their father was Superintendent of the Military Academy. President Franklin Pierce set up a “German tree” in the White House in 1856. Newspapers and women’s magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Godey’s Lady’s Book spread the Christmas tree custom to all ethnic groups and economic classes.

Merry Christmas to all! 

 

 


Myth # 73: The Christmas tree is an old German tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.

December 17, 2011

Strasbourg, from a 1492 text

This time of year, most museums and historic sites put up a Christmas tree which they endeavor to make relevant by decorating it to a certain date–a Victorian tree, a Civil War tree, or a 1940s tree, for example. Usually a docent or placard will say something like, “The Christmas tree was an old German tradition with roots in the Middle Ages,” or, “. . . with roots in the pagan festivals that dated back to the time of ancient Rome.” There is no evidence for either statement. No records from the Middle Ages or earlier mention or portray a Christmas tree.

Some cite the old tradition of a paradise tree as a plausible ancestor to the Christmas tree, but the link sounds weak to me. Judge for yourself: The paradise tree was a standard stage prop in one of the popular religious plays (called mystery plays), the one about Adam and Eve. It was hung, appropriately enough, with what passed for red apples. Although it would seem an oxymoron, December 24 was, in those years, commonly celebrated as Adam and Eve’s birthday—thus their association with Christmas. Those who see the paradise tree as the precursor to our Christmas tree claim, with some logic if no proof, that the apples evolved into our round ornaments. 

The earliest hint of the Christmas tree custom can be found in 1561 in a sternly worded Alsatian (German) prohibition that forbade anyone to “have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes’ length.” Whether this was a fire precaution, a conservation measure, a religious prohibition, or something entirely different, we will probably never know, but authorities wouldn’t have passed a law against excessive Christmas trees if people hadn’t been putting them in their homes. A few decades later in 1605, one year before the Jamestown adventurers sailed to Virginia, the first description of a decorated Christmas tree shows up–also in Alsace. “At Christmas they set up fir-trees in the parlors at Strasbourg and hang roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, &c.”

The custom spread slowly among wealthy, upperclass Germans—it was certainly not common in average homes. Nor was it popular with everyone. One German minister in Strasbourg deplored the frivolous practice: “Among other trifles with which the people often occupy the Christmas time more than with God’s word, is also the Christmas or fir tree, which they erect in the house, and hang with dolls and sugar and thereupon shake and cause to lose its bloom. Where the habit comes from, I know not. It is a bit of child’s play . . . Far better were it for the children to be dedicated to the spiritual cedar tree, Jesus Christ.” 

The Christmas tree custom originated in the German Rhineland (although Strasbourg is now on the France side of the border), probably in the 1500s. It may be older than that, but the proof is lacking. (Claims about Latvia or Estonia having the first documented Christmas tree in 1510 or thereabouts are hard to verify; even if they prove solid, the premise remains the same, as these were Germanic people too, especially in the Baltic port cities.) 

medieval Strasbourg

historic houses in Strasbourg


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,269 other followers

%d bloggers like this: