Ryde Social Heritage Group research the social history of the citizens of Ryde, Isle of Wight. Documenting their lives, businesses and burial transcriptions.
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December 2007 – The History of the Christmas Tree

Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas

The Christmas tree has become such an important part of a traditional English Christmas that it is difficult for us to imagine Christmas without a tree, but this wasn’t always so.

In the 7th century a monk from Devonshire went to Germany to teach, he did many good works there and it is said that he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The people he converted began to revere the fir tree as God’s Tree. By the 12th century, in central Europe, it was being hung upside down from ceilings at Christmas time as a symbol of Christianity.

The first recorded decorated Christmas tree was in Riga in Latvia in 1510. Then in 1535 Martin Luther decorated a small Christmas tree with candles to show his children how the stars twinkled through the night.

By the middle of the 16th century Christmas markets became popular in German towns. They sold everything from gifts, food and even more practical items such as kitchen utensils. Bakers made shaped gingerbreads and wax ornaments for people to buy and take home to hang on their Christmas Trees.

A visitor to Strasbourg in 1601 recorded a tree decorated with “wafers, barley sugar twists and coloured paper flowers”. It is thought that the early trees were symbols of the Paradise Tree in the Garden of Eden, the food items were symbols of ‘Plenty’ and the flowers, originally only red (for Knowledge) and white (for Innocence).

Tinsel was first invented in Germany around 1610. Originally real silver was used and machines were invented that pulled the silver out into wafer thin strips. Although the silver was durable it tarnished quickly with the candle light. Mixtures of lead and tin were also attempted but these were not successful and silver was used for tinsel right up until the mid 20th century.

The Christmas tree first came to England with the Georgian Kings who came from Germany. German traders who lived in England decorated their homes at Christmas with decorated trees but because the British public were not very fond of the German monarchy they did not copy the fashion of the royal court and it took some time for the Christmas tree to establish itself in Britain.

Queen Victoria christmas tree

In 1846 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pictured in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Because Queen Victoria was so popular with the public they were eager to copy the fashion and soon the Christmas tree was firmly established in English society.

The decorations tended to be home made and young ladies would spend hours quilling snowflakes and stars, sewing little pouches for secret gifts and making paper baskets to hold sugared almonds. Small bead decorations and fine drawn out silver tinsel came from Germany together with beautiful Angels to sit at the top of the tree. Candles were often placed into wooden hoops for safety.

In the 1860’s English Trees became more innovative than the delicate trees of earlier decades. Small toys were popularly hung on the branches, but still most gifts were placed on the table under the tree.

By the 1870’s, Glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Germany and it became a status symbol to have glass ornaments on the tree, the more one had, the better ones status, however home made ornaments were still very popular. The British Empire was growing and people were very patriotic. The popular tree topper at that time was the Nation’s Flag, sometimes people used flags of the Empire and flags of the allied countries to decorate their trees.

The 1880’s saw a rise of the Aesthetic Movement and at this time Christmas Trees became a glorious hotchpotch of everything one could cram on; or by complete contrast the aesthetic trees which were delicately balanced with delicate colours, shapes and style. Previously the trees had tended to be small table top trees but now with the decorations more readily available the Christmas trees became a status symbol, the larger and more decorated the tree the better.

The first electric tree lights were used in 1882, three years after Thomas Edison gave his first public demonstration of electric lights. The early Christmas tree lights were handmade and were soon were being produced and displayed in different colours, but only for the very wealthy families since they were very expensive!

The Christmas trees of the 1890s were a joy to see, reaching up to the ceiling and covered with glitter and tinsel and toys galore, it was a case of ‘anything goes’. Everything that could possibly go on a tree went onto it. By 1900 themed trees became popular, colour themed with ribbons or balls, or even topical such as an Oriental or Egyptian themed tree. These were to be the last of the great Christmas Trees for some time.

Queen Victoria died in 1901 and the Nation went into mourning and fine trees were not really in evidence again until the nostalgia of the Dickensian fashion of the 1930’s. Christmas cards all sported Crinoline ladies with muffs and bonnets popular in the 1840’s. Christmas Trees became large, and real again, and were decorated with many bells, balls and tinsels, and with a beautiful golden haired angel at the top.

The war put a stop of many of these trees as it was forbidden to cut trees down for decoration, and with so many raids, many people preferred to keep their most precious heirloom Christmas tree decorations carefully stored away in metal boxes. If they did decorate trees at Christmas they tended to be only small table top trees which could be taken down the air-raid shelters to add a little Christmas cheer. Large trees were still erected in public places to give moral to the people.

In post war Britain there was a revival of nostalgia again. People started getting trees as large as they could afford, although many poorer families used table top artificial trees. But the real trees were still the favourites if people could afford them. The most popular decorations at the time were all produced by a British manufacturer and sold by FW Woolworth in Britain. Translucent plastic lock together shapes, Honeycomb paper Angels, and ‘glow-in the dark’ icicles. Real trees were often difficult to find in the rural areas and sometimes Holly Bushes were decorated. Mass production techniques soon lowered the price of the Christmas lights so that many people could afford them. Gradually windows and doors were also decorated with the coloured ‘fairy lights’ and today many people also decorate the outsides of their houses with lights at Christmas.

The mid-1960’s saw another change and artificial trees became cheaper and more popular. One such tree called the Silver Pine was designed to have a revolving light source under it with coloured gelatine windows which allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved. No decorations were needed for this tree. Decorations became sparse. Glass balls and lametta created an ‘elegant’ modern tree. However many families ignored fashion and carried on putting their own well loved decorations on their trees!

In the 1980s Britain returned to Victorian nostalgia and companies produced antique replica decorations. Although real Christmas trees remained popular many people preferred the convenience of authentic looking artificial trees. These trees never dropped needles and looked real; it was even possible to buy pine scented sprays for the ‘real tree smell’!

Today we still have Christmas trees but these days they tend to be more about self expression than fashion; some people colour co-ordinate their trees to their rooms, others have themed trees, some still have the ‘cram on as many decorations as possible’ trees and some have minimalist painted twigs. Whatever people choose to do with their trees is acceptable, but a Christmas without a decorated tree just does not seem right and the Christmas season is made bright by the lights of the Christmas Trees!

Merry Christmas to you from Ryde Social Heritage Group!