The Christmas Tree

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

One decoration that deserves its own history is the Christmas tree. Whoever thought that chopping down a tree, bringing it indoors and covering it with lights would be a good way of celebrating Christmas?

The story goes back many thousands of years, to ancient druids and Celts who worshipped trees, especially evergreens. The first we know of Christmas trees, however is in Germany in the sixteenth century. By 1600 trees were being decorated for Christmas in Strasbourg. Over the next 200 years the custom of decorating trees spread through the German speaking world, but were hardly ever heard of in Britain.

After Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert, Britain discovered the Christmas tree. One picture has influenced the way British homes appear at Christmas more than any other, and that is an illustration of how Queen Victoria and Prince Albert  were celebrating Christmas with their children in Windsor Castle. The picture appeared in the London Illustrated News in 1848. This was the style magazine of its day, and when it showed the British public the decorated Christmas tree which Albert had ordered from his native Germany then every aspiring middle class home had to get one immediately. But 1860 the decorated Christmas tree was an essential part of the British Christmas.

Something a little surprising about that famous picture is that the royal Christmas tree is quite small, really just the top of a tree standing on a table, and for a long time British Christmas trees have been small table top affairs, whether real or artificial. The idea of having a full size tree, reaching from the floor to the ceiling of your house has come from America, where they have always had bigger trees.

One of the most important debates of Christmas is what to put on top of your tree. Some people have suggested that the fairy on the tree is a relic of the tree’s pagan origins, but it’s more likely that it started out as an angel. Both and angel and a star appeared in the skies at Christmas – the angel as a messenger to the shepherds and the star to the wise men. How we started putting them on top of our trees, though is a bit of a mystery.

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