Yuletide odyssey: A brief history of Christmas trees
Picking out and decorating your very own tree is one of the highlights of the festive season. Deciding the colour of tinsel to wrap around the tree and whether to top it with a star or a fairy can cause hours of family fun and even feuds.
The tradition of having a decorated tree in your home hasn’t always been around. While evergreen fir trees have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years, the Christmas tree in its current guise has only been popular in the UK since the nineteenth century.
Read on to find out the history of the Christmas tree, from warding off winter spirits to royal recommendations.
Down in yon forest
Before evergreen trees were a symbol of Christmas, they were used by pagan Norsemen in northern Germany to ward off evil spirits. Pagans believed in nature spirits and worshipped trees such as the oak, which was often used to represent the Norse god Odin.
As winter approached, it brought with it malicious spirits, cumulating with the Winter Solstice, when winter was at its darkest. It was thought that plants and trees which stayed green throughout the year had special powers to ward off the spirits accompanying the darkness.
Mistletoe and holly were especially popular, often wound into wreaths and hung over windows and doors. Entire evergreen trees were brought into homes, known as Yule trees, to celebrate the Norse god Jul and the Yuletide festival.
The saints go marching in
This practice continued until the appearance of a missionary from the Roman Catholic Church during the 8th century. Saint Boniface of Credition travelled from England across northern Europe in his quest to convert the pagans to Christianity.
Legend has it that upon seeing a human sacrifice at the foot of a great oak tree, St. Boniface seized his axe and struck the tree. The tree fell, and Boniface drew the attention of the community to a nearby evergreen tree. He spoke of using the tree to embrace his religion, acting as a symbol of their devotion.
This legend, whether based on truth or not, helped to cement the use of evergreens as a Yule tree when celebrating the Roman Catholic Church’s Christ’s Mass for the people of Germany.
Rockin’ around the Christmas tree
The first publicly decorated Christmas tree on record was way back in 1510 in Riga, Latvia. The tree was put up by men wearing black hats who proceeded to first dance around the tree, and then set it on fire.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
The tradition of decorated Christmas trees spread from Germany to the UK thanks to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. German born Albert had often celebrated Christmas with a tree as a youngster, and was keen to share this childhood treat with his new wife.
In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal couple with a beautifully decorated tree, and within a few years the sight was common throughout homes in Britain.
I wish it could be Christmas every day
Since then the popularity of Christmas trees has reached dizzying heights. The UK goes through around eight million real trees annually, while over 30 million are sold in the United States over the festive season.
The most common trees sold in Scotland are the Nordman fir, Norway spruce and the lodgepole pine. Each tree has its own distinctive features, from its smell and shape to the texture of needles and sturdiness of the branches.
The evolution of the Christmas tree has seen it go from pagan protector to Victorian must-have through to the modern day bauble-covered bonanza that we know and love. And we hope they’re here to stay!