The Chronological History of the Christmas Tree
Many of my 2012 posts will pertain to my ancestral heritage of Ostfriesland, Germany. Known today as Niedersachsen, the area’s turbulent past with the North Sea prompted individuals to seek higher ground to the land across the waters. I have gained much insight over the years of these former times from two quarterly publications: The Ostfriesen NeuesBlatt (Newspaper) and Ostfriesen Genealogical Society of America’s, American-Ostfriesen Zeitung (newspaper).
Whether you decorate a Christmas tree or not, the article that follows may be of interest to you. It was published in the November 2007 issue of the Ostfriesen NeuesBlatt. Source: Roots Web, a former online resource for those of Ostfriesen descent. Editor, Lillian Marks. The late 1990’s article is in no way an exhaustive study of the Christmas tree’s origin, only a brief synopsis.
St. Boniface Story Why do we have a decorated Christmas Tree? In the 7th century a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, went to Germany to teach the Word of God. He did many good works there and spent much time in Thuringia, an area which was to become the cradle of the Christmas decoration industry.
Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the holy trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The converted people began to revere the fir tree as God’s tree, as they had previously revered the oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity.
The first decorated tree was at Riga in Latvia, in 1510. In the 16th century, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small Christmas tree with candles, to show his children how the stars twinkled through the dark night.
Christmas Markets In the mid 16th century, Christmas markets were set up in German towns, to provide everything from gifts, food and more practical things such as a knife grinder to sharpen the knife that carved the Christmas goose. At these fairs, bakers made shaped gingerbreads and wax ornaments for people to buy and take home to hang on their Christmas trees.
The best record we have is that of a visitor to Strasbourg in 1601. He records a tree decorated with “wafers and golden sugar twists (barley sugar) and paper flowers of all colors.” The early trees were biblically symbolic of the paradise tree in the garden of Eden. The many food items were symbols of plenty; the flowers, originally only red (for knowledge) and white (for innocence).
Tinsel Tinsel was invented in Germany around 1610. At that time real silver was used, and machines were invented which pulled the silver out into the wafer think strips for tinsel. Silver was durable but tarnished quickly, especially with candlelight. 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.
The Victorian/Albert Tree In 1846 the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German prince, Albert, were illustrated in the Illustrated London News. They were standing with their children around a Christmas tree. 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 English Christmas tree had arrived.
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.
Mid-Victorian Tree In 1850’s 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. The Rauschgoldengel was a common sight. Literally, ‘tingled-angel,’ bought from the Thuringian Christmas markets and dressed in pure gilded tin.
Around this time the Christmas tree was spreading into other parts of Europe. The Mediterranean countries were not too interested in the tree, preferring to display only a crèche scene. Italy had a wooden triangle platform tree called a ‘Ceppo.’ This had a crèche scene as well as decorations.
The German tree was beginning to suffer from mass destructions. It had become the fashion to lop off the tip of a large tree to use as a Christmas tree, which prevented the tree from growing further. Statues were made to prevent people having more than one tree.
The Pennsylvanian German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. America being so large, tended to have pockets of customs relating to the immigrants who had settled in a particular area, and it was not until the 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 the 1870’s glass ornaments were being imported from Lauscha, in Thuringia. 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 ornaments were 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) and metal hooks for safer hanging of decorations onto the trees (1892).
The American Tree In America, Christmas trees were introduced into several pockets—the German Hessian Soldiers took their customs in the 18th century. In Texas, cattle barons from Britain took their customs in the 19th century, and the East Coast Society copied the English Court tree customs.
Settlers from all over Europe took their customs also into the 19th century. Decorations were not easy to find in the shanty towns of the West, and people began to make their own decorations. Tin was pierced to create lights and lanterns to hold candles which could shine through the holes. Decorations of all kinds were cutout, stitched, and glued. The general stores were hunting grounds for old magazines with pictures, rolls of cotton batting (cotton wool), and tinsel, which was occasionally sent from Germany or brought in from the eastern states. The paper ‘putz’ or Christmas crib was a popular feature under the tree, especially the Moravian Dutch communities which settled in Pennsylvania.
In America, the Addis Brush Company created the first brush trees, using the same machinery which made their toilet brushes. These had an advantage over the feather tree in that they would take heavier decorations.
After 1918, because of licensing and export problems, Germany was not able to export its decorations easily. The market was quickly taken up by Japan and America, especially in Christmas tree lights.
In the 1930’s, there was a revival of Dickensian nostalgia. 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 tinsel, and with a beautiful golden haired angel at the top. But wartime England put a stop to many of these trees. It was forbidden to cut trees down for decorations, and with so many raids, many people preferred to keep their most precious heirloom Christmas tree decoration 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 when the air-raid sirens went. However, large trees were erected in public places to give moral to the people at this time.
The mid 1960’s saw another change. A new world was on the horizon, and modernist ideas were everywhere. Silver aluminum trees were made in America. The ‘silver pine’ tree,’ patented in the 1950’s, was designed to have a revolving light source under it, with colored gelatin windows, which allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree. No decorations were needed for this tree.
America made a return to Victorian nostalgia in the 1970’s, and it was a good decade later that Britain followed the fashion. At first this was a refreshing look, and manufacturers realizing the potential created more and more fantastic decorations. Some American companies specialized in antique replicas, actually finding the original makers in Europe to recreate wonderful glass ornaments, real silver tinsels and pressed foil “Dresdens.”
Real Christmas trees were popular but many housewives preferred the convenience of the authentic looking artificial trees which were being manufactured. If your room was big enough, you could have a 14 foot artificial spruce right there in your living room—without a single dropped needle—and so good that it fooled everyone at first glance. There are even pine scented sprays to put on the tree for that ‘real tree smell.’
The late 1990’s tree has taken the Victorian idea, but with new theses and conceptual designs. The Starry Starry Night Tree, the Twilight Tree, The Snow Queen Tree…These trees are still with us—what will the new millennium bring?
Vintage postcards compliments of an Ostfriesen cousin. Danke!
“Frohe Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas)