DDBspotlight: The history of the Christmas tree: From frost-plagued Northmen and gilded potatoes

By Wiebke Hauschildt (Online editor)

By far the most popular Christmas tree in German living rooms is the Nordmann-Fir. Soft needles, dark green and beautifully grown, these are the features why the Fir is sold million of times for the festive season. The name also fits well: Nordmann-Fir is associated with deeply snow-covered forests in the North of Europe, where these strong firs stand unaffected year after year and are awaiting their end – beautiful only for those who are humanly involved. There is only a small problem. The Fir does not come from the north at all; it actually comes from Georgia or the West Caucasus. It does not cope well with coldness and late frost, sometimes it suffers from silver fir lice, fungus and fir bark beetles and is not nearly as robust as its name suggests.

But how did this fir and actually fir trees in general manage to be part of festive Christmas living rooms worldwide? For this a small excursion is necessary. This dates back – as is so often the case – to ancient times.

"Freiburg: Place at the Victory Monument, Christmas tree with lights" (December 1964), Photographer: Willi Pragher, National Archive Baden-Wuerttemberg (CC BY 3.0 Germany)

Laurel wreaths, evergreen and eternal life

According to the Encyclopedia Brittannica evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands as a symbol for eternal life were already used by ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrew. Among the pagan Europeans the adoration of trees was common too and in the Scandinavian countries there was the custom to hang fir branches at New Year in order to daunt the devil. Also in Roman antiquity the houses were decorated with laurel branches at the turn of the year – the evergreens promised hope for an early return of spring.

The erecting and decorating of tress have been found in the following centuries in a variety of places and to various circumstances, whether it was the setting up of May trees and “Richtbäumen” or, especially in the Middle Ages, the use of the Tree of Paradise on the occasion of clerical Paradise Games. For this occasion the tree – it did not necessarily have to be evergreen – was hung with apples as a symbol for the Fall of Man.
But all these trees are not yet Christmas trees and they are not always firs or pines. When exactly it was the first time that a Christmas tree was decorated in a house – the scientists argue over it. The folklorist Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann, who wrote the standard work „Christmas, a cultural and social history of the Christmas Season“ (1978), dates the earliest Christmas tree to the year 1570. In a Bremer guild chronicle from this year it was reported about a small fir-tree, which, decorated with fruits, pretzels and paper flowers, was erected in the guildhall, where the children were allowed to plunder it for Christmas.

"Bucharest: Ms. Bogdan, at the Christmas tree", Photographer: Willi Pragher, National Archive Baden-Wuerttemberg (CC BY 3.0 Germany)

But now: The Christmas tree has found its way into our houses

Anyone who researches the history of the Christmas tree inevitably stumbles upon Strasbourg again and again. It is said that already in 1539 a Christmas tree was standing in Strasbourg’s Cathedral. The first records of a Christmas tree as a common custom originate from the year 1605, again from Strasbourg: „At Christmas there are erected fir-trees in the parlours at Strasbourg. On them you hang horses made of multicoloured paper, apples, oblates, sizzling gold [thin, shaped flash plates made of metal] and sugar“, you can read at Wikipedia, to mention Strasbourg once again: „In a paper written between 1642 and 1646, the preacher at the Cathedral, Johann Conrad Dannhauer raged against the custom to set up Christmas trees in the homes: „Amongst other trifles, so that the old Christmas season is often celebrated with more than God’s word, there is also the Christmas or fir tree, which is set up at home, hung with dolls and sugar, and then it is shaken off and faded (cleared away). I don’t know where the custom comes from; it is a children’s game“.“

"Strasbourg Cathedral" (Copper Plate 1615), Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Brunswick (CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

Now, the relevant Christmas historians agree that it was not at the Strasbourg’s Cathedral, where the evergreen custom began, but that it was actually the guilds mentioned before, from where the tree wandered in the bosom of the families. One thing seems certain: The beginnings of the Christmas tree can be found in Germany respectively in Alsace. And: It was initially a purely urban phenomenon, which did not reach rural areas in the 17th and 18th centuries. The aristocracy contributed to the Europe-wide spread of the tree. They found joy in the green fir and with the help of the European Royal Houses the custom of setting up a tree for Christmas at the beginning of the 19th century spread to Russia and by Prinz Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, to the English monarchy.

"Flying leaves: "The proud fir’s sad fate" (1854), University Library Heidelberg (CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

Literary references, gilded potatoes and once more Nordmann

One of the first mentions of the Christmas tree in German literature was made by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his novel „The Sorrows of the young Werther“ (1774). On a Sunday before Christmas Werther is visiting „his beloved Lotte and is talking about times, when the unexpected opening of the door and the appearance of a „decorated tree“ with wax lights, sweets and apples delighted you.“

With the increasing popularity of the Christmas tree one problem soon became apparent: In Central Europe there were not enough of them and only from the second half of the 19th century fir forests were increasingly created to meet the demand. Strange effects were also produced by the preferred tree decorations: While the duchess Dorothea Sybille of Silesia in 1611 was one of the first to decorate the tree with candles, „the Prussian King Friedrich der Große reported to decorate the tree with gilded potatoes, which should depict the paradise fruit in a special way.“ Today, the Christmas tree ball is the glassy witness to the tradition of decorating the tree with the forbidden fruit – the apple from paradise.

"Christmas tree gold for the gilding of nuts, apples etc." for the Christmas tree (1906), Museum of European Cultures, State Museums of Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Germany)

Finally, here is the explanation for the naming of the “Sensitive Soul” among the firs, the Nordmann-fir. The fir got its robust name after the name of its discoverer, the Finnish researcher Alexander von Nordmann (1803-1866). He encountered the fir in the mountains near Borchomi (what is now Georgia) in 1838 and called it „Abies nordmanniana“. However, the Nordmann fir has only been a roaring success in German living rooms in the last twenty years: Nowadays its proportion of all Christmas trees sold amounts to about 80 per cent.

On the Peter’s Square in Rome there has been a Christmas tree since 1982 too – whether it is as Nordmann-Fir? At least the Italian climate would make it seem likely.

More Christmas trees in the Deutschen Digitalen Bibliothek (German Digital Library)