One of the most iconic traditions of Christmas is having a tree in your house, decorating it and placing the presents underneath. How early did this tradition begin?
In his book Inventing the Christmas Tree, Bernd Brunner takes a look at the scattered references to Christmas trees that can be found during the Middle Ages. They suggest that by the 15th century it would not be unusual to find trees being used in Christmas festivities in northern Europe.
However, the earliest references are not always clear. Brunner writes, “in 1419 the Freiburg Fraternity of Baker’s Apprentices appears to have seen a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel in the local Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Another document claims that the first Christmas tree was erected in Tallinn, Estonia, in the year 1441. There the tree was set up in front of the town hall for a dance. The record is ambiguous, though, for the Middle Low German word that was used – bom – could also have referred to a decorated mast or pole.”
John Stow, who wrote a Survey of London in 1598, explains that he found an account from 1444 which reported that in one London neighbourhood there was “a standard of tree being set up in the midst of the pavement fast in the ground, nailed full of holme and ivie, for disport of Christmas to the people.”
The Latvian capital of Riga has long claimed to be home of the earliest Christmas Tree. In the year 1510 the Brotherhood of Blackheads – a guild of foreign merchants and shipowners living in the city – erected a tree in Riga’s main square for the winter solstice and decorated it with thread, straw and apples. Later it was burned on a bonfire.
The tradition of the Christmas Tree remains strong in Riga today, as this video from the local tourism board suggests:
While many of the documents about earliest Christmas Trees are from the sixteenth-century, it is clear that these traditions were often decades old. Brunner tells how local authorities were passing laws to protect trees from being cut down for the seasonal festivities. In the French region of Upper Alsace, a law from 1561 said that citizens could take only “one pine in the length of eight shoes” from the forest. Meanwhile, in the city of Strasbourg, the practice was to cut off the branches from a pine tree and bring them home for the New Year – at least until the town clerk had it banned in 1494.
In the early modern period we can see more Christmas Tree traditions being developed:
The chronicle of a guild in Bremen from 1570 contains references to a tree placed in the guild’s hall and decorated with applies, nuts, pretzels, and paper flowers. For the Christmas celebration the children were allowed to shake the tree as they would have during the fall harvest. Sometimes these decorated trees were apparently carried in processions and the poor were allowed to plunder the fruits and baked goods before everyone began to dance.
Meanwhile, in John Stow’s London, you could find that in “every man’s house and also his parish church was decked with holme, ivie, bayes, and whatever the season of the year afforded to be green.”
Whether it be entire trees, or just branches, it seems that they could be found in many people’s homes by the sixteenth-century and perhaps earlier. The tradition has continued to be popular to this day.
See also Seven Medieval Christmas Traditions