This year marks the 600th anniversary of the earliest known reference to a Christmas tree. Maybe.

It’s actually quite difficult to be entirely sure when the Christmas tree as we would recognise it first emerged, and there are several candidates for the title of the first in various centuries, but this 600th anniversary is the strongest candidate.

The key thing though is that the Christmas tree is far older than many people realise, and even the story of it arriving in the UK in Victorian times is not correct either.

One of the more likely origins of the Christmas tree can be traced to the snake in the Garden of Eden and apples. Which indirectly is why we decorate trees with garlands of tinsel and baubles — it’s the tree of knowledge from the Garden of Eden.

Back to medieval times, when German town guilds used to put on Paradise Plays around Christmas, and these tales of the expulsion of man from Eden needed a tree, and a snake, and an apple.

What was essentially a stage prop seems to have gained a second life as something that may have been put up elsewhere – hence the Christmas tree, although we’re still in Germany and they didn’t speak Modern English (although neither did the English at the time).

Probably the best known earliest Christmas tree dates to 1419 – when the Honourable Guild of Bakers in the German city of Freiburg put up a fir tree for Christmas in the Hospital of The Holy Ghost for The Poor that was decorated with honey flavoured cookies, nuts, and dried fruits and left standing until New Year, then shaken to release the “fallen fruit” for the children to eat.

Over the next century or so, the placing of trees in public spaces as decorative items grew in popularity. So much so that there are reports of too many trees being chopped down in German forests.

The earliest known drawing of a decorated tree also comes from this part of Germany, as a copper plate of the Penance of Saint John Chrysostom by Lucas Cranach the elder of 1509 shows a tree with decorations on it, above a princess that the saint is “venerated” for having had sex with then murdering afterwards. Standards were a bit different in those days.

Despite, or maybe because of, their popularity, many German towns started banning the plays in the time of the Protestant Reformation as being variously either too pagan or too papist. People will always find an excuse to exploit if they don’t like something.

Despite that, the tree continued to be popular, and in an odd twist of fate, later was to became closely associated with the Reformation.

You are however doubtless aware that the first Christmas Tree to appear in the UK was brought here by the German Prince Albert, put up in Windsor Castle, and after illustrations were published in the newspapers, everyone rushed out to their local garden centres and bought their own trees.

Which shows a remarkable amount of foresight by the garden centres to stock up on dead fir trees on the off chance that a Royal endorsement will make sales suddenly soar.

Of course, that’s not what happened, as people had been putting up Christmas trees for several centuries. OK, rich people did that, as poor people couldn’t afford one.

All the way back in 1598, John Stow, writer of a Survey of London noted that “in the year 1444, that by tempest of thunder and lightning, on the 1st of February, at night, Powle’s steeple was fired, but with great labour quenched; and towards the morning of Candlemas day, at the Leaden hall in Cornhill, a standard of tree being set up in midst of the pavement, fast in the ground, nailed full of holm and ivy, for disport of Christmas to the people, was torn up, and cast down by the malignant spirit (as was thought)

Whether this was a Christmas Tree as we would recognise it, or just an elaborate public display of the sort of seasonal greenery being put up inside homes at the time will probably never be proven.

However, the idea of a tree being erected inside homes and decorated for Christmas certainly predates Prince Albert, although we can still blame the Germans for it.

We can go back to mad King George III, and more specifically the very German sounding Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz who brought the tradition with her when she was dragged to England to marry a King and is reputed to have set up a full-scale indoor tree in Windsor in December 1800.

The German tradition she brought comes from a story that the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, who is said to have wandered through a pine forest one winter’s night in 1536 and looked up to see the stars sparkling through the trees like ornaments adorning their branches. This inspired him to bring a pine tree into his home at Eisleben and illuminate it with wax candles to recreate the sublime effect.

That he was replicating an idea that his own religious movement was seeking to suppress will be looked over as being annoying inconvenient.

As with most things Royal at the time, if the King or Queen did it, then so did everyone else who ever visited Court. Thus the nobles were putting up Christmas trees long before Prince Albert was given all the glory for popularising an idea that was already popular.

Ultimately, there as many origin stories for the Christmas tree as there are days of Christmas, and while something that later developed into the Christmas Tree as we would recognise it today is certainly older than 600 years, this evening, when the tree is lit in Trafalgar Square, we can at least celebrate the 600th anniversary of the earliest known example of a Christmas Tree.

Sources:

A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions by Mark Forsyth

‘Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle’, from Supplement to the Illustrated London News , Dec 1848

Penance of Saint John Chrysostom, 1509

The Survey of London

Why Queen Charlotte really deserves the credit for bringing the Christmas tree to Britain

The First Christmas Tree

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