Evergreen: The Origins of the Modern Christmas Tree


   It is difficult to imagine Christmas without a Christmas tree. It is one of the most vivid and recognisable symbols of this festive time of year. Although the origins of this tradition are very ancient, the Christmas tree as we know it is relatively modern, and did not become a popular feature of Christmas time until quite late into the 19th Century.

     The tradition of using evergreen trees as festive decorations during the winter holidays is so ancient that it predates Christmas itself. The first evidence of a ‘Christmas’ tree being used as a festive decoration dates back to the Roman period in Germania, when wreaths of evergreen were used during the Saturnalia festival, a pagan festival in honour of the Roman god Saturn that involved a week-long festival of entertainment and fun held between December 17-23rd, according to the Julian Calendar.

   As Germany became Christianized, the old traditions of Tree-worship and Saturnalia were displaced by Christmas in celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. Some of the old pagan traditions, such as the use of evergreen, survived into the early modern era. By the 16th Century, a tradition said to have been established by Martin Luther of decorating the home with an evergreen tree lit up with candles fixed to the branches, began to become firmly established.

     At first, the Xmas tree was an almost exclusively German tradition, though similar customs existed in France, Poland, and as far afield as Georgia, where a white “tree” made of tied-up branches arranged into the shape of a conifer tree and meant to symbolise the beard of St Basil the Great still continues to this day. The British Hanoverian dynasty brought this German tradition with them, and the Christmas tree was firmly established as a custom within the Royal Family by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1836. The tradition was cemented still further when the Queen married her German cousin Prince Albert, and from then on the tradition began to filter through the aristocracy, down to the middle class, and eventually to the working class themselves.

     The adoption of the Christmas Tree in the United States is owed in part to the large influx of German immigrants (whose descendents compromise the largest single ethnic group in the US today), but also due to a popular lady’s magazine of the mid-nineteenth century, Godey’s Lady’s Book, that featured a copy of an engraved scene of the Queen and Prince Albert enjoying Christmas at Windsor Castle, complete with Christmas tree (though minus the Queen’s tiara, in order to appeal more to America’s republican sentiments!) The tradition was first largely confined to areas of the US with large populations of ethnic Germans, such as Pennsylvania, and was virtually unknown in New England until a combination of German and English cultural influence ensured that the tradition eventually spread all through the United States.

     By the late 19th century, the Christmas tree was a ubiquitous feature of the Christmas holidays throughout the US and the British Empire, and other parts of the Western World. In Britain, the use of the Christmas tree declined during and immediately after the First World War due to anti-German sentiment, but the tradition soon rebounded in the 1920s, and it once again became a popular feature of the family home and public squares at Christmas, and remains so to this very day.

By Matthew Hill-Spur