The evergreen fir tree has been used to celebrate winter both pagan and Christian festivals for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice to remind them of the spring to come. The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia, and the Christians used them as a sign of everlasting life with God, as they remained green all year round.
The first documented use of a tree at Christmas is in the town square of Riga in Latvia from 1510. To this day, in the town square there is a plaque which is engraved with “The First New Years Tree in Riga in 1510”.
In 1584, the historian Russow wrote about Riga having a decorated fir tree in the market square each winter. He spoke of young men who “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”.
It is widely believed that the first person to bring a Christmas Tree into a house was the 16th century German preacher Martin Luther. Tradition states that one night before Christmas, when walking through a forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful, that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas.
These first German Christmas Trees were decorated with gingerbread and apples. By 1605 special ornaments were being made by glass makers to decorate tress. Originally figures of the Baby Jesus were put on the top of the tree. Over time it changed to an image of the Angel that told the shepherds about Jesus or the Star the Wise men saw.
The first Christmas Trees came to Britain in the 1830s. They became very popular in 1841, when Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had a Christmas Tree set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the Illustrated London News, 1848.The publication of the drawing helped Christmas Trees become popular in the UK and then the USA.
In Victorian times, the tree would have been decorated with candles to represent stars. In many parts of Europe, candles are still widely used to decorate Christmas trees.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.