Where did the Christmas Tree come from?

Nov 28, 2020

Why do we bring a tree inside our house at Christmas time and hang things on it…? Do you use a real fir or spruce tree or a fake one?! Some Christmas trees used in stores, and in homes, are huge! Then there are all the choices for decorations - merchandising gone mad. I start to think about new creative adornments that kids could make... But where did this all start?

Branches of evergreens in winter 

Before the birth of Christ and Christian celebrations of Christmas in December, many countries and cultures placed significance on the trees that stayed green all year believing they kept away evil spirits and sickness. In the northern hemisphere, it is winter in December and some ancient cultures who worshipped a Sun God, thought that these evergreen trees were special because they stayed alive during these months. So hanging branches over doors and in windows was thought to bring good luck.

It was also their colour and freshness. People would bring branches from trees like the fir or spruce into their homes to brighten them up during the cold, dark days. This is where the use of holly, ivy and mistletoe also came into practice - bringing in flowers and colour during the bleak months.

Christmas fir trees

From just branches to whole trees probably evolved in about the 1500s. There seems to be a general consensus that the tradition of a Christmas Tree in the house was started by Christians in Germany. The triangular shaped fir tree seemed to represent the trinity and so became a symbol of Christ. Trees then started to be brought into the house at Christmas time.

Traditional decorations

Stories vary as to what was used for decorations but in the early days there were apples, gingerbread, nuts and berries. Then there were the additions of paper streamers, roses made with paper and even tinsel which the Germans invented in 1610. Tinsel is made from thin shiny strips (initially shredded silver) attached to thread and was intended to look like sparkling ice. Decorating became more popular and festivities grew with the big royal courts adding gold leaves to their trees.

In the 1840s and 50s in England, decorating Christmas trees became an established tradition due mainly to the actions of Queen Victoria. She had grown up in Germany decorating the Christmas tree each year. A drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree in Windsor Castle was published by the Illustrated London News in 1848. Once the concept of the Christmas Tree took off in England, it became more acceptable in America and other countries.

In Germany, early ornaments were biscuits or cookies made in the shape of angels, stars, flowers and hearts. People started painting nutshells, and making paper shapes and streamers. Glass ornaments were made to represent apples and other fruit. Gradually they took on the more spherical shape of the baubles we think of today. In the 1880s, F W Woolworth visited Germany and decided these glass ornaments would sell in his stores back in America. Merchandising of Christmas decorations was taking off. Only the rich could afford these handmade glass ornaments but eventually they were made from plastic and so became affordable for the wider community. In more recent times, Hallmark created limited-addition glass baubles that became collectables.

In the 1700s wax candles were added to the trees - this made them sparkle like the stars. In 1895 an American invented the first electric Christmas lights - after many fires!

At the top of the tree there is often a star, representing the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to baby Jesus in the stable. Bells are also a symbol used by Christians to announce an arrival or event or just as a part of festivities. Different types like Church bells and sleigh bells became popular tree adornments.

Today, decorating the Christmas Tree has little religious connection but is a well-established tradition across countries and cultures whether it be winter or summer, northern or southern hemisphere. Fashions and fads for decorations change, predominantly dictated by commercial enterprises. Creative merchandising has resulted in great variations on trees and their decorations. But what tends to remain is a fir tree with ornaments, elements that make it sparkle and a star on top.

Making your own decorations 

Right from the beginning things added to the tree were handmade, home-crafted. Whether at school or home, there are many opportunities for children to make ornaments to add to their own tree or as a gift. Traditionally, these were edible like biscuits or sweets - more difficult to make at school and can end up too big or heavy. Easier are two dimensional decorations such as discs made colourful and sparkly: add glitter! Try painting little pine cones in silver or gold. Streamers made from rings of paper looped together can be draped around the tree. Cutting up tin foil makes all sorts of shapes, like stars.

Your Christmas Tree takes on its own personality when the kids create the decorations themselves rather than just using commercial products. Artventure also has ideas for drawings of Christmas Trees and other Christmas decorations. See what you can find.

Happy drawing, Happy creating. Happy Christmas!

Teacher and Artventure Blogger