You must have seen them – even in pictures. Cut evergreen trees, laden with brightly colored ornaments. Dripping Christmas cheer and pine needles, in equal measure.

Christmas trees.

Pretty, you might think. Nice custom.

But, why have it?

The Origin Of It

15th-century Livonia (Estonia and Latvia, of the present day), and Northern Germany of the 16th century were the first places where the custom of erecting a decorated tree at Christmas time was recorded.

The Estonian Brotherhood of Blackheads put up a tree for the holidays at their brotherhood house in Reval (present-day Tallin), in 1441, 1442, and 1514. On the final day of celebrations leading up to Christmas, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square, where the members of the brotherhood danced around it.

In 1584, church historian Balthasar Russow wrote of an established tradition of putting a decorated spruce tree in the market square. A group of young men and women would sing and dance, before setting fire to the spruce.

The Mystery, Of It

Each human culture has its own religious interpretation of the beginning of the world.

In the Christian tradition, God created the first man, Adam, and Eve – the first woman. He set them both in a Paradise known as the Garden of Eden. In the Garden stood a Tree, whose fruit contained Knowledge of Good and Evil. There was also a snake, in Paradise, which seduced Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge – and convincing Adam to do the same.

Their innocence shattered, Adam and Eve passed the capacity for evil on to all future generations of humankind.

All very inspiring, I’m sure.

During the Middle Ages in Germany, this story was re-enacted in Mystery Plays, at Christmas time. Churches where the plays were performed often featured an evergreen “Paradise tree”, from which an apple was plucked, to symbolize the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve. Wafers representing the Christian Eucharist’s Body of Christ also adorned the tree.

The Paradise tree was later placed in homes, with its apples being replaced by round objects such as shiny red balls.

In a later tradition, the Eucharist wafers were replaced by cookies, of various shapes. Candles were frequently added, as a symbol of Jesus Christ. A Christmas pyramid was often set up in the same room, consisting of a triangular wooden frame. Its shelves held Christmas figurines, and it was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star.

By the 16th century, the Christmas pyramid and Paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.

Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh…

A chronicle from a guild (craftsmens’ or merchants’ association) in Bremen, Germany, from 1570 reports that a small tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels, and paper flowers” was erected in the guild-house, for the benefit of the guild members’ children – who gathered up the treats, on Christmas Day.

Soon after this, Christmas trees were seen in the houses of upper-class Protestant families – as an alternative to the Nativity scenes placed in Catholic homes.

In the 19th century, trees came into wider use – often in schools and lodging houses. Christmas trees were placed in German army barracks and military hospitals during the war of 1870-1871. This helped to popularize the practice, and encourage people to erect trees in their homes.

Spreading The Word

Or rather, the foliage.

The Christmas tree remained the province of the Protestant community of Germany’s upper Rhine region until the 19th century. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Prussian officials brought the tradition to the Roman Catholic society of the lower Rhine.

In the Americas, Brunswick soldiers stationed in Quebec introduced the tree custom in Canada, in the winter of 1781. General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel held a Christmas party at Sorel, featuring a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.

The early 19th century saw the custom becoming popular among the European nobility, reaching royal courts as far as Russia. Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Wellburg brought the Christmas tree to Vienna, Austria, in 1816.

In France, the first Christmas tree appeared in 1840, introduced by the duchess d’Orleans. Countess Wilhemine of Holsteinborg lit the candles on Denmarks’s first Christmas tree, in 1808.

In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced during the union between the British Royal family and the House of Hanover, by King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the early 19th century. When Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert a few decades later, the trees gained widespread popularity in Britain, and beyond.

A woodcut drawing of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was published in the Illustrated London News of December, 1848. The picture was copied in the United States, in the Godey’s Lady’s Book edition of Christmas, 1850. The image was “Americanized” by the removal of Queen Victoria’s tiara (jeweled head-dress) and Prince Albert’s moustache. It was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become a common practice in America.

Tree? What Tree?

The most commonly used trees are fir (Abies), which do not shed their needle-like leaves when they dry out, and which retain a good color and scent.

The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is most common in Northern Europe. This was the “original” tree, and generally the most economical.

In North America, Central America, and South America the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and the Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) are popular.

Other evergreen species such as pines are also used – as are whatever local trees are in season, in a given place.

Get Real. Or Not?

The first artificial Christmas trees appeared in Germany, during the 19th century. They were made using goose feathers that were dyed green. The branches were often tipped with artificial red berries that acted as candle holders. Sizes ranged from 2 inches (51mm) to a 98-inch (2,500mm) tree sold in department stores during the 1920s.

In 1930, the U.S.-based Addis Brush Company made the first artificial Christmas tree using brush bristles. Aluminum trees were first manufactured in Chicago, USA, in 1958.

Most modern artificial Christmas trees are made from recycled plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Tree-shaped ornaments for desktops and shelves are often made of cardboard, glass, ceramics, or plastics.

Advocates of artificial trees contend that they are more convenient than the natural ones, and can be used year after year.

Environmentalists argue that since natural trees break down organically (are bio-degradable) they have considerably less negative impact than their artificial counterparts.

Some people just have a gut preference, for one option or the other.

The debate rages on.

Stand, For It?

A Christmas tree stand is an object designed to support a cut, natural tree, or an artificial one. Stands designed for natural trees may have a water reservoir, to hydrate the living tree. Artificial trees usually have a plastic or metal stand, with legs shaped like a Y.

A skirt of fabric or plastic may be placed over the stand. This has a hole in the middle, for the tree trunk to pass through. A slot in its outside edge allows the skirt to be arranged around the tree more easily.

A plain mat of fabric or plastic may also be placed beneath the stand and skirt, to protect the floor from scratches or water – and to catch the needles that invevitably fall from the tree branches.

Decorations, Then

Tinsel – glittering, decorative metallic strips or threads – and several types of garland or ribbon are typically used to decorate a Christmas tree.

In the 1800s, home-made white Christmas trees were produced by wrapping strips of cotton batting around leafless branches, to simulate snow.

Flocking – spraying on tufts of white cotton or wool – became popular on the West Coast and Southern parts of the United States, in the 1940s and 1950s. Cans of “spray snow” are available for this purpose, even now.

Small hollow glass or plastic spheres known as baubles are another popular decoration. They are coated with a thin metallic layer, to make them reflective. A thin player of plastic is used to provide color.

Lighting with candles or strings of electric lights (fairy lights) is commonly done.

Many people decorate outdoor trees with garlands of popcorn, cranberries, orange halves, or seed-covered suet cakes. These are often enjoyed by birds, and other wildlife.

A tree topper – in the form of an angel, or a star – completes the picture.

And that completes our picture, for today.

Stay ever green. And don’t be blue.