THE HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE
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The use of evergreen trees as part of a seasonal celebration has been popular in and around Europe for centuries - if not millennia. In fact as far back as Roman times, evergreens trees were used in the ancient Saturnalia festival – the Roman equivalent to our modern New Year’s celebrations. It was also their custom to exchange the branches and twigs of evergreen trees as a good-luck blessing.
Although many historians agree that it was Scandinavian pagans during the eight century who first brought trees into their homes for ceremonial practices, it was the German Saxons who took the idea further by illuminated their trees with candles, and adorning them with decorations for good fortune. This tradition became so ingrained in German culture it was no wonder it made the jump to the Christmas celebration via early German Christians.
.The best and earliest example of a fir tree being used as part of the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth was by Martin Luther - leader of the protestant reformation during the sixteenth century. Legend has it that on one crisp Christmas Eve, Martin Luther was taking a walk through some snow covered woods when he became struck by the beauty of some small frosted evergreens which appeared to shimmer in the moonlight as he approached them. When he returned home, he brought with him one of the smaller tree which he set up inside so he could share this story with his children. He then decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honour of Christ's birth.
During the 19th century the popularity of the Christmas tree tradition took off, and spread throughout the Royal Courts of Europe and Russia. As a child of 13, the future Queen of England – Princess Victoria - was already well traveled and familiar with the custom. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, she wrote,
'...after dinner...we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room...There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…'
The Victorian and Albert Tree The Christmas tree ‘officially’ arrived in England in 1841, when Queen Victoria's husband - the German-born Prince Albert - set up a tree in Windsor Castle. Introduced first to this country by German Merchants, it was the influence of the Georgian Royal family that really brought the Xmas tree to our attention. However, the British public were not particularly fond of the German Monarchy during this period and so the fashion for displaying a Christmas tree – for the time being - stayed at Court.
Although the traditional Christmas tree was still unpopular during the first half of the 19th Century, things were set for a change in 1846, when a woodcut of the Royal couple was published in the Illustrated London News. They were pictured standing with their children around a decorated Fir tree, but unlike the previous Royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court this time immediately became fashionable – but not just in Britain.
In America, German immigrants had been using Christmas trees as far back as the 1830's, but the custom took several decades to properly catch on because its pagan origins. However, in 1850 the Victoria and Albert woodcut illustration was re-published in Godey's’ Lady's Book’. Godey's had copied it ‘almost’ exactly as it had been seen in England, but the decision was made to remove the Queens crown and Prince Albert’s moustache in an effort to remake the engraving into more of an American style scene. This was the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America, and after subsequent reprints during the 1860’s and 1870s, the putting up of a decorated Christmas tree had become truly ingrained in popular American culture and remains so to this day.
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