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A History of the Christmas Tree

One of the delights of December in Tavistock is the Christmas Tree Festival held in the parish Church of St Eustachius. The lights on the creatively decorated trees from Tavistock’s various community groups and businesses add a magical atmosphere to the church. They seem even more brilliant at dusk recapturing some of the magic and excitement associated with the Christmas tree, with the tempting presents beneath the branches, many of us felt as children.

But the Christmas tree is a relatively recent addition to the medieval pagan tradition of decorating houses and churches with evergreen plants from the garden for the winter solstice on 21st December, the shortest day of the year.

Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and was unwell in the dark winter days, but he would begin to recover again after the solstice. The howling winds of winter storms were thought to be evil spirits and decorating the home with evergreen plants was regarded as a way to ward off these spirits. Plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe were brought into the home or attached to doorways for this purpose. Their evergreen quality was also thought to encourage the return of spring and symbolise fertility.

One of these plants was the European mistletoe, Viscum album, which was hung above doorways. It was thought to ward off evil spirits, became associated with fertility, and was also a sign of friendship and love in Norse mythology.

From this association a tradition evolved for guests to kiss the hand of a host on arriving at the house. This led to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe and was adopted in Victorian times as part of Christmas traditions. Girls refusing to kiss under the mistletoe potentially risked the terrible fate of remaining unmarried and becoming old maids.

Mistletoe is a parasite which grows on a range of trees including apple, hawthorn, lime, oak, poplar and willow. Birds eat the white berries, which are toxic to humans and leave the seeds, which then germinate on the tree. The plant can only grow by taking nutrients from the tree, so ancient Druids believed the plant contained the spirit of the tree, as often only it remained green in the winter.

Holly was also part of pagan decorations and later became incorporated into Christian traditions associated with the crucifixion. The prickly leaves representing the crown of thorns and the red berries the blood shed at the crucifixion. Ivy was another evergreen used in midwinter and for church decorations from the 15th and 16th centuries. The popular carol the ‘Holly and the Ivy’ was published in Birmingham in the early C19th.

One legend on the origins of the Christmas tree is that the C16th German preacher and reformer, Martin Luther, was the first person inspired to bring a whole evergreen tree into the house and add lighted candles. He wanted to recapture for his family the magical sight of stars twinkling among evergreen trees he had observed in 1536 after a winter walk in the country.

The decorated family Christmas tree was widely popularised by Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert, although he was not, as is widely reported, the first to introduce it. Decorated Christmas trees had been known in Germany from 1605. An anonymous writer records the inhabitants of Strasburg setting up fir trees and decorating them with coloured paper, fruit and sweets.

In the Duchy of Mecklenburg- Strelitz the tradition was to bring a single yew branch into the house and decorate it. In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited this region at Christmas and wrote to his wife in 1799 describing the tradition of the decorated lighted yew branch with its associated family gifts.

It was Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, who put up the first known whole English Christmas tree. In 1761 when Charlotte came to England from the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz to marry George she introduced the tradition of setting up a decorated yew branch at Christmas for the royal household in one of the largest rooms in Windsor Castle. The court gathered around the candlelit branch to sing carols and exchange gifts.

In 1800 the first English Christmas tree was introduced at court by Charlotte outside the Queen’s Lodge at Windsor Castle. It was an entire yew tree decorated with baubles, fruit and toys, and was the centre-piece for a Christmas party for all the children of the principal families at the court of Windsor. Dr John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, described the magical, candlelit tree, which delighted the children, who had toys and sweets from the tree.

By the early 1800s the tradition of the Christmas tree was already established in aristocratic circles using a variety of evergreen trees lit with candles and surrounded by presents. In 1807 William Cavendish-Bentinck, Duke of Portland, the then Prime Minister, is recorded to have set up a Christmas tree at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, ‘for a juvenile party’.

Prince Albert brought some spruce fir trees from Germany to Windsor Castle in 1840 and decorated them with lighted candles, although by that time this tradition had already been adopted by the aristocracy.

Between 1845 and 1850 periodicals like the Illustrated London News and The Graphic began to publish images and describe the royal Christmas trees. Some of these images were published on the covers of the magazines. The articles were also reported more widely in the press and by the1860s Christmas trees had been widely adopted in middle class homes as part of the celebrations.

The spruce fir became the most popular festive tree to decorate. The Illustrated London News in 1848 published an image showing the Royal Family gathered around a lighted spruce fir tree at Christmas. This image widened the popularity among middle class families of bringing a tree into the family home for the festivities. The tree in the image had the branches pruned into well-defined tiers, as was the German tradition.

In the USA, despite widespread German influence, the first record of a Christmas tree was not until 1855 and in France 1870. The first Christmas tree illuminated with electric light bulbs appeared in New York City in 1882. Thomas Edison’s company manufactured the first Christmas tree lights and advertised them for sale in 1901 in the Ladies Home Journal.

Anti-German sentiment after World War I briefly reduced the popularity of the Christmas tree but by the mid-1920s Christmas trees as part of the Christmas festivities had spread to all classes. In 1947 Oslo donated the first Christmas tree for public display on Trafalgar Square in London in gratitude for Britain’s assistance to Norway in World War II. From this time a public tree was also set up behind the statue of Queen Victoria at the entrance to Windsor Castle.

In Tavistock we have decorated Christmas trees on the Town Hall, beautiful lights around the Court Gate buildings, and along Plymouth Road which provide much sparkle to brighten up the dark December days.

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