Christmas trees. Is there anything more iconic these days when it comes to holiday decorations? But have you ever paused to actually consider why we bring an entire tree into our house once a year…or even go to the trouble of erecting fake ones?
The tradition can be traced back to Germany in the Middle Ages. Evergreens had long been a symbol of eternal life, in many religions and cultures, including Christianity. The idea of decorating a tree at this particular time of year however is, interestingly enough, not because of the celebration of the birth of Christ. Nope. It’s because it’s also the feast day of Adam and Eve, and in the Middle Ages, this included reenactments of the story for the masses, who couldn’t read it for themselves and wouldn’t have owned any expensive books like the Bible anyway. Well, in Europe, the only trees still green at that time of year were, of course, evergreens. And the only fruit that lasted that long when picked was the apple. So apples were tied to evergreen branches to represent the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
But it wasn’t long before that decorated tree began to be a symbol to Germans of the whole season. Each family began cutting down its own tree and bringing it inside–and this came with some rules. The trees had to be trimmed into a perfect triangular shape, to represent the trinity. They were usually decorated with things like apples, pretzels, wafer cookies, nuts, and straw. (Historically, trees were undecorated on Epiphany and the children got to eat the treats!)
Legend has it that Martin Luther was the first to affix lighted candles to the tree, to try to mimic the beauty of stars viewed through pine boughs.
Christmas trees were unique to the area now called Germany for several centuries. But in the late 1700s and early 1800s, German immigrants brought the tradition to America, and it soon caught on here. In England, Prince Albert brought the tradition with him to the palace, and he and Queen Victoria made it iconic there as well in 1848, when the London Illustrated News published an image of them and their children gathered around the tree…with presents underneath. This is the first published record of gifts under a Christmas tree. By the time Albert died in 1861, the tradition had been cemented in England as well, with him getting the credit for it.