One of the most iconic traditions of Christmas is having a tree in your house, decorated with ornaments and with presents underneath. When and where 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 Christmas trees were becoming a common sight during seasonal festivities across northern Europe.
However, the place of the first Christmas tree is disputed. Brunner finds several references from Germany, England the Baltic region. The earliest he came across was the town of Freiburg in southwest Germany. Apparently, in the year 1419, the city’s Fraternity of Baker’s Apprentices records seeing a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel at the local hospital. However, another scholar named Klaus Graf points out that the evidence for a Christmas tree in Freiburg can only be accurately traced back to 1625 and not earlier.
“Another document claims that the first Christmas tree was erected in Tallinn, Estonia, in the year 1441,” Brunner notes. “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.”
There is a claim from England, if one believes John Stow, the author of a Survey of London. Although he wrote his work in 1598, Stow explains that he found an account from 1444 that tells of one London neighbourhood having “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 to 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 the 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. Brunner writes:
The chronicle of a guild in Bremen from 1570 contains references to a tree placed in the guild’s hall and decorated with apples, 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 late-16th-century London, John Stow states 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 celebrated to this day.
Inventing the Christmas Tree, Bernd Brunner is published by Yale University Press. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.
Top Image: Photo by Rolf Schweizer / Flickr