Only 4 more sleeps till Christmas. The cards have all been written and posted and all the presents have been bought, wrapped and are sitting under the Christmas tree. We take it for granted every year and consider it one of our Christmas family traditions. Decorating the Christmas tree, but what do we actually know about this tradition, when did it start and who started it ?
A long time before the advent of Christianity, trees and plants that remained green all year round had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just the same as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with Spruce, Pine and Fir trees, the people of ancient times hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away not only illness but ghosts, evil spirits, and witches.
The Fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals both pagan and Christian, for thousands of years. Pagans used the branches of the fir tree to decorate their homes during the Winter solstice. This made them think of the coming Spring. The Romans also used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia, whilst Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.
It is thought that Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees in Northern Europe over a thousand years ago. Very early Christmas trees were reported to have been hung upside down from the ceiling on hooks or even chandeliers.
Cherry or Hawthorn plants or even just a branch were put into pots and brought inside to hopefully flower at Christmas time. Other people made pyramids from wood and then decorated them to look like a tree with apples, paper and candles. Sometimes instead of being displayed in the home they were they were carried from house to house. It is thought that these trees were indeed Paradise Trees. These trees were used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches on Christmas Eve. The Paradise Tree represented the Garden of Eden and was paraded around the town to advertise the play. The plays would tell Bible stories to people who could not read or write.
The first documented use of a tree at Christmas is debated between two cities. Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia. The cities both claim that they had the first trees, Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510. The story tells of the trees being put up by the 'Brotherhood of Blackheads' a group of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners in Livonia (what is now Estonia and Latvia).
The first person who is thought to have actually brought a Christmas tree into a house the way we do now was German preacher Martin Luther the 16th-century Protestant reformer, who added lighted candles to a tree. One winters night whilst walking toward his home he noticed the stars twinkling amidst the evergreen trees. To recapture the scene for his family, he put a tree up in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. It is believed that this custom of decorating the tree then travelled along the Baltic sea, from Latvia to Germany. Many Christmas traditions practiced around the world today started in Germany.
In Germany, the first Christmas Trees were decorated with edible decorations such as gingerbread and gold covered apples. Then glass makers made special small ornaments similar to some of the decorations used today. In 1605 an unknown German wrote: "At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, etc." Originally it was a figure of the Baby Jesus that was put on the top of the Christmas tree. Over a period of time it changed to an angel or fairy or a star like the Wise Men saw that night.
The first Christmas Trees came to Britain in the 1830s. They became very popular in 1841, when Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert had a Christmas Tree set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a drawing of "The Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle" was published in the Illustrated London News. Queen Victoria was very popular and many people would have wanted to emulate her. During Victorian times, the tree would have been decorated with candles to represent the stars. In many parts of Europe today, candles are still used to decorate Christmas trees.
It is also said that in the early 16th century, people in Germany combined two customs together. The Paradise tree (a Fir tree decorated with apples) represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Then the Christmas Light, a small pyramid-like frame, usually decorated with tinsel, glass balls, and a candle on top, was a symbol of the birth of Christ as the Light of the World. These changes made by the Germans created the Christmas tree that we all know and love today.