Today’s tradition of a tall decorated pine tree that we most associate with Christmas has beginnings almost 1000 years ago. The origins of this tradition seemed to have begun with St. Boniface (the man credited with converting the German people to Christianity) who, when coming across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree, was said to have cut down the tree in anger. Then to his amazement a young fir tree sprung from the roots of the oak tree. St Boniface then took this as a sign of the Christian faith. But it was not until the 16th century that fir trees were brought indoors at Christmas time.
Ironically it is from Germany that we get many of today’s Christmas customs, songs, images of Santa and most importantly pine trees and blown glass ornaments to decorate with. The spread of these traditions is also an interesting story. Queen Victoria of England often visited relatives in Germany in the town of Coburg. It was there that she fell in love with a young Prince Albert. After marrying, they then returned to England to raise their family. The Christmas tree that Prince Albert provided his family was admired all throughout England. The tree was decorated with the finest hand blown glass ornaments. Since the Queen was the style setter of her day, this custom was soon copied by her loyal subjects.
It was the retail magnate F.W. Woolworth who brought the glass ornament tradition to the United States in 1890. From the 1870s to the 1930s, it was the Germans who held the corner on the market for the finest handmade ornaments. Historical experts record that nearly 5,000 different molds for ornaments were in production at that time. Even more remarkable was the fact that at the turn of the 19th century there were over one hundred small cottage glass blowing workshops in Europe. Today there are only two major workshops that produce hand blown glass ornaments.
After World War II, the traditions of the Christmas tree began to change in response to changing styles. In the 1960s it became fashionable to have an aluminum tree with ornaments that were all the same size and color. Sadly, many collectible ornaments at this time were lost as many people threw them out. It wasn’t until the 1980s, with the return to nostalgic items, that many people began looking to decorate their traditional green fir tree with traditional ornaments. This has lead to resurgence in collectible decorations of all kinds for Christmas trees.
But ornaments (glass or otherwise) are not the only decorations on the Christmas tree. Some historians have traced the lighted Christmas tree to Martin Luther. It is said that he attached lighted candles to a small evergreen tree, while trying to simulate the reflections of the starlit heaven. He wanted his tree to be a reminder of the heaven that looked down over Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve. Before electricity, the only choice in lighting your Christmas tree was small candles (both a dangerous and labor intensive task). While many people choose traditional lighting for their Christmas tree, the choices today are simply endless- between white, single colored or multi-colored lights. The lights can be found in various shapes and configurations and can even be programmed to blink, stay on or fade off!
The evergreen branches of the pine tree have meant many things throughout the ages. The Christmas tree itself has gone through a long process of development that is shown through its many legends. Today’s Christmas celebrant can choose to decorate their Christmas tree (traditionally or not) and still know they are part of a long and glorious history.