The First Christmas Tree
- John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas
The first historically recorded mention of Christmas tree actually comes from an anonymous German citizen (indeed, most of the records we posses of early Christmas customs come from this country). Writing in 1605 he comments: "At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hand thereon roses cut out of many coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-fold, sweets,etc..." (A. Tille, Yule and Christmas, London, 1899). A few years later, we find a disgruntled Strasbourg theologian commenting on "people who set up the Christmas or fir-tree [which they] hang with dolls and sweets; and afterwards shake and deflower... Whence comes this custom I know not; it is child's play... Far better were it ti point children to the spiritual cedar tree, Jesus Christ" (Tille, Yule and Christmas.) This last comment is, as it points to the continuing significance of the evergreen and its burden in several different traditions.
Despite these occasional reproofs from the pulpit, the idea of the Christmas tree began to catch on. In 1737, Karl Gottfried Kissling, a professor at the University of Wittenburg, tells how a country lady of his acquaintance set up a little tree for each of her sons and daughters, lit candles on or around them, laid out presents beneath and called her children one by one into the room to take both the tree and the gifts intended for them
In England there are brief references in 1789 to the use and decoration of evergreen trees during the Christmas holiday, but it was not until 1840 when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert brought a Christmas tree to Balmoral, that the popular trend was finally set. The growth of the tradition is, in fact, clearly traceable; one can follow its progress throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, starting in Finland in 1800, through Norway and Denmark in 1830, to Sweeden by 1862, Bohemia in 1863, and spreading through Russia, the United States, Spain, Italy, and Holland in the years that followed. By the beginning of the twentieth century the traditional Christmas tree was so firmly entrenched that its origins had been wholly forgotten except in the writings os a few obscure antiquarians.