Every year, during the Christmas season, millions of people decorate trees with lights, ornaments, and other assorted items. Often, presents are laid out underneath the trees. But when did people start doing this? Why do we decorate trees during Christmas?
For centuries in the Roman era and early Middle Ages, decorating trees as a form of worship, particularly during the winter solstice, was part of non-Christian religious traditions in Europe and other regions that had been part of the Roman Empire. As far as can be discerned, however, the modern custom of decorating trees as part of Christmas has no relation to these practices.
Legend says that the practice of decorating conifers during Christmas was started in the early 1500s by Martin Luther, the initiator of the Reformation. I thought this, too, but it turns out that there is no proof of this, and the tradition has been traced back at least a hundred years or so earlier. Along the Baltic coast, in what is now Latvia, Estonia, and parts of northern Germany, trade guilds – collectives of merchants, traders, and seafarers – started decorating pine trees as part of their Christmas season festivities. The custom spread over the centuries, but was still confined mostly to Protestant areas of the German countries (there was no united Germany until 1871). Over time, gift-giving also became associated with Christmas tree, and with presents being hidden in wrapping and placed under the trees.
It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the idea of the Christmas tree started becoming popular outside of what is modern-day Germany. It was a well-established custom in Austria, France, and Denmark by the middle of the 1800s. In North America, German settlers and mercenaries brought the custom with them from the mid-1700s onward. In England, the first Christmas is thought to have appeared in 1800, when Queen Charlotte, a native of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and wife of King George III, decorated a tree in one of the largest rooms in Windsor Castle. Still, the practice of decorating Christmas trees did not spread much outside the Royal Family until, in 1840, Albert, from Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, married Queen Victoria and became Prince Consort of England. By 1900, in Britain, the United States, Germany (of course) and elsewhere, the Christmas tree had become virtually synonymous with Christmas itself.
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- Christmas tree, accessed December 11, 2016
- History of Christmas Trees, accessed December 11, 2016
- The First Christmas Tree, accessed December 11, 2016