History of the Christmas Tree

A Christmas tree for German soldiers in a temporary hospital in 1871

The English Canadians celebrated Christmas Day with gifts in the morning, a midday church service and a huge feast consisting of roast goose, beef and plum pudding. English Canadians also had the kissing ball, a ring of evergreen branches that symbolized the end of the winter solstice but was used by young men to steal kisses from single women beneath it.

The Boston Christmas Tree, the Canadian tradition of sending a Christmas tree to Boston every year during the holiday season, was the result of the Halifax Explosion over eighty years ago. Two ships collided on December 6, 1917, killing approximately 2,000 people and injuring at least 9,000 more. Hundreds of acres of land were destroyed by a tidal wave caused by the explosion. The town of Boston sent nurses, doctors, medical supplies and more to assist the Canadians and in thanks, the Canadians sent a Christmas tree. This tradition has continued throughout the years.

The custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly the 15th century, in which "devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes".[1] It acquired popularity beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, is usually credited with having introduced the Christmas tree into England in 1840. However, the honour of establishing this tradition in the United Kingdom rightfully belongs to ‘good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.

Legend has it that Queen Charlotte’s compatriot, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree. One winter’s night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.

Certainly by 1605 decorated Christmas trees had made their appearance in Southern Germany. For in that year an anonymous writer recorded how at Yuletide the inhabitants of Strasburg ‘set up fir trees in the parlours ... and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.’

In other parts of Germany box trees or yews were brought indoors at Christmas instead of firs. And in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, where Queen Charlotte grew up, it was the custom to deck out a single yew branch.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) visited Mecklenburg-Strelitz in December, 1798, and was much struck by the yew-branch ceremony that he witnessed there, the following account of which he wrote in a letter to his wife dated April 23rd, 1799:  ‘On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlours is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough ... and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces’.

 

 

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