Did you ever wonder where the tradition of an indoor decorated Christmas tree came from? There have been many ideas put forth but I'll limit this discussion to just a very few.
The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals, both 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. Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.
Nobody is really sure when fir trees were first used as Christmas trees, but it probably began less than 1,000 years ago in Northern Europe. Many early Christmas trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains. A new trend today is a resurgence of hanging decorated trees upside down!
The first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is debated between the cities of Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia. Both claim that they had the first trees; Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510. 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 was described as a tree decorated with "apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers." It was displayed in a "guild-house," a meeting place for a society of business men in the city.
The first person to bring a Christmas tree into a house, in the way we know it today, may have been the 16th century German preacher Martin Luther. A story is told that one night before Christmas, he was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas.
At first, a figure of the Baby Jesus was put on the top of the tree. Over time it changed to an angel that told the shepherds about Jesus, or a star like the wise men saw.
The first Christmas trees came to Britain sometime in the 1830s. They became very popular in 1841, when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a drawing of "The Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle" was published in the Illustrated London News. The publication of the drawing helped Christmas trees become popular in the UK and USA.
In Victorian times, the tree would have been decorated with lighted candles to represent stars. In many parts of Europe, candles are still used to decorate Christmas trees, posing a real fire hazard. In 1882 Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison, hand-strung 80 red, white and blue bulbs together and put them on his tree in his New York apartment, a much safer way to put lights in a flammable tree.
Artificial Christmas trees really started becoming popular in the early 20th century. In the Edwardian period Christmas trees made from colored ostrich feathers were popular at fashionable parties. Around 1900 there was even a short fashion for white trees --so if you thought colored trees are a new invention they're not! Today, artificial Christmas trees far outnumber real trees used for decorations.
In the Western Christian tradition, there are two traditional days when Christmas decorations, such as the Christmas tree, are removed; the Twelfth Night (Jan. 5 or 6) and, if they are not taken down on that day, Candlemas, the latter of which ends the Christmas-Epiphany season in some denominations (Feb. 2).
So how long do you keep your decorations up? Most people take their Christmas decorations down at or around New Year's Day. Others wait until their tree becomes a fire hazard before giving up their Christmas cheer.
Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.