The History of Christmas Trees
The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to come. The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.
Nobody is really sure when Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees. It probably started about began 1000 years ago in Northern Europe. Many early Christmas Trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains (hung from chandeliers/lighting hooks).
Other early Christmas Trees, across many part of northern europe, were cherry or hawthorn plants (or a branch of the plant) that were put into pots and brought inside, so they would hopefully flower at Christmas time. If you couldn’t afford a real plant, people made pyramids of woods and they were decorated to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles. Sometimes there were carried around from house to house, rather than being displayed in a home.
It’s possible that the wooden pyramid trees were meant to be like Paradise Trees. These were used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches on Christmas Eve. In early church calendars of saints, 24th December was Adam and Eve’s day. The Paradise Tree represented the Garden of Eden. It was often paraded around the town before the play started, as a way of advertising the play. The plays told Bible stories to people who could not read.
The first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is in town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, in the year 1510. In the square there is a plaque which is engraved with “The First New Years Tree in Riga in 1510”, in eight languages. The tree might have been a ‘Paradise Tree’ rather than a ‘real’ tree. Not much is known about the tree, apart from that it was attended by men wearing black hats, and that after a ceremony they burnt the tree.
A picture from Germany in 1521 which shows a tree being paraded through the streets with a man riding a horse behind it. The man is dressed a bishop, possibly representing St. Nicholas.
In 1584, the historian Balthasar Russow wrote about a tradition, in Riga, of a decorated fir tree in the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”. There’s a record of a small tree in Breman, Germany from 1570. It is described as a tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers”. It was displayed in a ‘guild-house’ (the meeting place for a society of business men in the city).