The tradition of bringing an evergreen coniferous tree into the house and decorating it for Christmas is of surprisingly recent origin. It seems to have started in Livonia (now Latvia and Estonia) on the Baltic coast in the fifteenth century. But it did not spread beyond urban areas in northern Germany until the early eighteenth century, and took a long time to move south down the Rhine, because the Catholic majority of southern Germany considered it a Protestant custom. (This is slightly ironic because it is now protestant fundamentalists who object to Christmas trees.) The practice was disseminated throughout Europe mainly through the influence of assorted German princesses marrying widely across the continent. The Hanoverians brought the tradition to Britain.
It is not true that Prince Albert introduced Christmas trees. (In fact, Queen – then Princess – Victoria described a Christmas tree in her journal when she was 13.) This popular myth about Prince Albert’s role seems to have arisen from the following odd little circumstance. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a woodcut of the royal family grouped round their decorated Christmas Tree. In 1850, Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular American almanac, published a copy of this picture, but ‘photoshopped’ it, removing Victoria’s tiara and Albert’s moustache, to make the scene more domestic for its readership. This picture was enormously influential in establishing Christmas trees in the USA (and may even explain why today American Christmas trees are different from European ones, denser and more regularly shaped than the droopier naturalistic European fashion). The almanac reproduced the picture in 1860, and by the 1870s Christmas trees had become widespread everywhere in both Britain and the USA.
The tradition of bringing the forest into the home or village to mark special holidays is very ancient. Flowering may was collected and brought home on Mayday; and holly and ivy were used to decorate homes for Christmas throughout the medieval period (as was mistletoe, the sacred plant of several pre-Christian religions, particularly the Druids). Both holly and ivy were quickly given Christian symbolism – ivy representing faith and eternal life (because ivy continues to grow on dead wood), and holly being a reminder of Christ’s crown of thorns, the prickly leaves sprinkled with blood-red berries. The popular carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, first found in print in 1709 and probably sung earlier than that, was a replacement for a far older version which had no Christian content at all.
There are ancient customs, too, of decorating trees; winding them in coloured wool was possibly the origin of the maypole, and dancing round them was a tradition that worried the church author- ities. Despite this discouragement, all through Germany – and especially in Bavaria – people danced round and decorated trees, particularly lime (linden, or tilia) trees.
But whether the custom was started by ancient pagans or by nineteenth-century nobility, a Christmas tree – a real one with coloured lights, a trumpeting angel and a disparate collection of ornaments, some of which I have hung every year since I have had a home of my own – feels like a necessary part of my Christmas.
Words by Sara Maitland
This is an extract from Sara Maitland's book, Gossip from the Forest.