THE HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE IN THE UK
The tradition of a festive tree has been around since ancient times and has played an important part in winter celebrations for many centuries. Most pagan religions used special trees as part of their rituals.
In Northern Europe the Vikings saw evergreen trees as a reminder that the darkness and cold of winter would end and the green of spring would return. The Druids of ancient England and France decorated oak trees with fruit and candles to honor their gods. During the mid-winter festival of Saturnalia the Romans decorated trees with trinkets and candles.
In the Middle Ages, a popular religious play depicted the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. An evergreen (probably a fir) tree hung with apples was used to symbolize the Garden of Eden and was called the Paradise Tree. The play ended with the prophecy of a saviour, and was often performed during Advent.
Another medieval tale tells how the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was originally a fir that had flowers, leaves and fruit like any other tree, but when Eve plucked the apple from its branches its leaves and flowers shrunk and turned into spiky needles. Now it only "flowers' when it is decorated at Christmas time.
There have also been many legends surrounding the lore of the Christmas tree. In one ancient story Saint Boniface, an 8th century English monk, came upon a group of pagans who were cutting down a fir tree to use as a stake for a human sacrifice. The pagans were apparently preparing to burn a child alive.
To stop the sacrifice and save the child, the Saint smashed the fir tree with one blow of his fist. Incredibly, another much smaller fir sprang up in its place, which Saint Boniface told the pagans was the Tree of Life and represented the eternal life that comes with Christianity. The pagans fled (presumably taking a pile of kindling wood with them).
According to another medieval story evergreen trees were not always green. Before the birth of Christ they lost their leaves each winter like other trees. But while Mary, Joseph and Jesus were on their way to Egypt they were forced to hide from Herod's soldiers in a clump of cedar trees. To hide the holy family the trees brought forth green needles and the cedars white berries turned blue so that Mary's blue robe blended in. Since that day evergreen trees have kept their color all year round.
Another related legend says that a pine tree hid the holy family and that the baby Jesus left the imprint of his hand forever in their fruit and that if you cut a pine cone lengthwise apparently you can still see the imprint of that tiny hand. (It has to be said that this didn't work when we tried it)
Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, is popularly believed to be responsible for illuminating the first Christmas tree. It is said that while returning home one December evening, the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of a fir compelled him to recreate the effect by fixing tiny lighted candles on the branches of the small Christmas fir tree inside his home. His followers copied the idea which quickly spread across Europe.
The idea of a Christmas tree indoors appears to have begun in medieval Germany and may be a relic of an earlier Celtic ceremony. German Christians would bring trees into their homes and decorate them with fruit and dried flowers. In some areas evergreen trees were so scarce that families would build a Christmas pyramid, a simple wooden structure which they decorated with branches and candles.
The tradition of the Christmas tree eventually spread throughout Europe. The English Royal Family introduced the idea of a Christmas tree to England when Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) had the first tree in 1800.
Queen Charlotte's biographer, John Watkins, wrote: "In the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweet-meats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruit and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles".
German merchants in Manchester apparently had decorated Christmas trees in the 1830s but Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were responsible for popularizing the Christmas tree when they posed with their children for a Christmas press photograph in 1848. The image was first published in the Illustrated News. The Royal family was pictured by an elegant Christmas tree decorated with candles, sweets, fruits, and gingerbread.
The photograph was subsequently published in newspapers all over the UK and caused a huge amount of public interest. The following year, leading society hostesses vied with each other to produce the most lavishly decorated tree and, in due course, the rest of the country followed suit. Early Christmas trees were usually decorated with apples, nuts, gingerbread, ribbons and candles. The invention of electricity in the early 20th century and widespread use of electrical Christmas lights made the Christmas tree even more popular. The first mass produced electric Christmas tree lights appeared in 1890.