Saturday, 14 December 2013 02:00

The Origins of the Christmas Tree are Ancient

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

Christmas is a time of traditions, an antique-lover’s paradise when it’s normal to seek out and embrace anything old. We do things at Christmas that we would never consider doing any other time of year; such as cut down a perfectly healthy tree, drag it in to the house, prop it up and decorate it with lights. If you did this in any month other than December, or left the poor thing up after mid-January, you’d be considered insane.

Putting up a tree is actually a relatively recent Christmas tradition but its roots, so to speak, go back to ancient times. People in many early cultures, from the Egyptians to the pre-Christian Norse in northern Germany, decorated their homes with evergreen boughs in winter for obvious reasons. The Norse worshipped many trees, especially the oak, but they revered fir trees, holly and ivy because they stayed green during the long, harsh winter. They were seen to harbour good spirits that kept the evil winter spirits away.

It actually makes sense that many rural, northern Europeans brought evergreen trees into their houses in December, the darkest time of the year, and partied like crazy when days started getting longer after December 21. They were farmers after all, what else could they do at that time of year?

Their celebrations were in honour of the god Jul, or Yule, and we still refer to Christmas as Yuletide.

110 christmas tree contentThe modern Christmas tree tradition was started by German Protestants some time in the 15th century. Martin Luther is widely credited with being the first to put candles on the tree after seeing stars shine through evergreens on a late night walk. The Protestants used the tree to replace the Catholic manger scene and although it was inspired by the Pagans, they employed it as a Christian symbol. It was decorated with apples, representing the fruit from the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. It pointed to heaven and was topped with either an angel or a star, representing the Star of David. By the early 18th century, the decorated tree was well established in Germany and was being slowly spread around the world by German emigrants who saw it as a vital part of German culture.

Most of our Christmas traditions come from Victorian England and indeed it was Queen Victoria, or rather her German-born husband, Prince Albert, who popularized the Christmas tree in England. An engraving (photographs hadn’t been invented yet) published in the Illustrated London News in 1848 shows the royal family around a decorated Christmas tree. Within ten years Christmas trees were in every wealthy family’s home. They gradually spread to the working classes who, like the early Norse, saw them as an antidote to the dreary world they lived in though the dreariness was caused as much by industrialization as winter.

That same engraving was copied for Godley’s Lady’s Book, published in Philadelphia in 1850. The Queen’s tiara and Price Albert’s moustache were removed to make it look more American. It has been called one of the most influential pictures ever because it almost single handedly popularized the Christmas tree in America.

Of course with modern industrialization Christmas tree ornaments became a business; glass balls replaced apples, electric lights thankfully replaced candles and garlands replaced strands of popcorn.

110 GodeystreeDec1850Vintage Christmas ornaments are very popular today. Serious collectors tend to focus on rare Victorian era pieces which can be quite expensive. Casual buyers like to have ornaments they remember from their childhood which can be much easier to find cheaply. Many families preserved their ornaments to use over and over again so even the very delicate glass balls from the 1950s are relatively plentiful. Harder to find are the ones made by the Shiny Brite company starting in 1937. They were the first American made decorations and were often very ornate and featured hand-painted embellishments.

The earliest form of glass decorations are called krugels, a generic term for hand-blown glass ornaments made in Germany and France starting in the mid 1800s. They not painted; the colours are in the glass which is silvered inside. They have very distinct brass caps and rare ones can sell for hundreds of dollars. There are many fakes and reproductions on the market so you should do some research before spending a large amount of money on one.

Oddly enough trees themselves can be quite collectable. Not the real ones obviously but artificial trees appeared early in Germany, largely because of deforestation. The first were made of wood with goose feathers for foliage.  These feather trees are hard to find and very desirable among collectors today.

Also popular are “bottle brush” trees. They were made with plastic bristles held in twisted wire, like a bottle brush, except cone-shaped. They come in many sizes and colours, perfect for collecting.

Ceramic Christmas trees from the 1970s have a nostalgic appeal for many. Several companies made moulds which allowed hobbyists to fashion and glaze their own trees; everybody’s mom made one or at least owned one. They were lit from within by one light bulb, with colourful bits of plastic that appeared as lights. Sounds cheesy, but people love them. We have two in our house.

The spinner tree works on a similar principle; it is simply a paper cone perched on a spindle over a light bulb. It has strategically place cutouts to let the light through and vent the heat from the bulb, which makes it spin. They are harder to find in good condition because the paper is easily damaged and disintegrates with age.

Just remember that even with a vintage artificial tree, don’t display it after mid January, that would be crazy.

Have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.