It is told that Saint Boniface, a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, England who established Christian churches in France and Germany in the 7th Century, one day came upon a group of pagans gathered around a big oak tree about to sacrifice a child to the god Thor. To stop the sacrifice and save the child’s life Boniface felled the tree with one mighty blow of his fist. In its place grew a small fir tree. The saint told the pagan worshipers that the tiny fir was the Tree of Life and stood for the eternal life of Christ.
It is also told that Saint Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. By the 12th Century, Christmas trees were hung from ceilings as a symbol of Christianity. However, in that time, for a reason no one could yet explain, the trees were hung upside down.
Trees as symbols
Trees were a symbol of life long before Christianity. Ancient Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year in December as a symbol of life’s triumph over death. Ancient Finns used sacred groves instead of temples. Romans adorned their homes with evergreens during Saturnalia, a winter festival in honour of Saturnus, their god of agriculture. Druid priests decorated oak trees with golden apples for their winter solstice festivities. During December in the Middle Ages, trees were hung with red apples as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve, and called the Paradise Tree.
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) is said to be the first to have decorated a Christmas tree with candles to show children how the stars twinkled through the dark night.
The first Christmas trees
The first reference of a fir tree decorated for Christmas is at Riga in Latvia in 1510. In 1521, the Princess Hlne de Mecklembourg introduced the Christmas tree to Paris after marrying the Duke of Orleans. There also is a printed reference to Christmas trees in Germany, dated 1531. Another famous reference, to 1601, is about a visitor to Strasbourg, Germany (now part of France) who noticed a family decorating a tree with “wafers and golden sugar-twists (barley sugar) and paper flowers of all colours.”
The Christmas tree was introduced to the United States by German settlers and by Hessian mercenaries paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. In 1804, US soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) hauled trees from surrounding woods to their barracks.
Britain was introduced to the Christmas tree in 1841, when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert brought a Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal family. The custom of of the Christmas tree spread quickly to the middle class, to working people, and throughout the colonies (where the Empire’s flag would sometimes top the tree).
Christmas tree angels were introduced in the 1850s.
Christmas tree decorations
Trees were decorated with apples, cakes and candies for many centuries. Martin Luther was the first to use candles on trees in the late 16th Century. In 1842, Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees to the US in Williamsburg, Virginia.
In 1850s, German company Lauscha, based in Thuringia, began to produce shaped glass bead garlands for Christmas trees. They also introduced the Rauschgoldengel, the Tingled-angel’, dressed in pure gilded tin. The glass ornaments reached Britain in the 1870s, and North America around 1880. In 1882, ornaments were complimented by electric Christmas lights. Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison, lit a Christmas tree with a string of 80 small electric light bulbs which he had made himself. By 1890, the Christmas light strings were mass-produced. By 1900, stores put up large illuminated trees to lure the customers.
In 1851, Mark Carr hauled two sleds loaded with trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York and opened the first retail tree lot in the US.
The popular Goose Feather Tree was invented in the 1880s in Germany to combat the damage being done to fir trees at Christmas time. The first brush trees were created in the US by the Addis Brush Company. The Tom Smith Cracker Company – named after the inventor of Christmas crackers – also produced artificial Christmas trees for a while.
Every year since 1947 the people in Oslo have given a Christmas tree to the city of Westminster. The gift is an expression of goodwill and gratitude for Britain’s help to Norway during WWII.
The US tradition of National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn was started in 1923 by President Calvin Coolidge.
The legend of the tinsel on the Christmas tree tells about a woman who had to care for a large family of children after her husband died. One Christmas, she prepared a tree to surprise the children. But because she worked alone to bring food to the table, she often had to work late into the night. When she wanted to bring the Christmas tree out, she saw that spiders had made webs all over it, from branch to branch. The Christ Child saw it and to spare her from sorrow, He changed the spiders’ webs into shining silver.
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