History of the Christmas Tree: From UK to Germany and Back

Christmas Tree
Image in public domain

What do an 8th century priest, a 16th century religious reformer, and the Victorian royals have in common? They all played a role in the history of the Christmas tree. Let’s find out how…

8th Century: St. Boniface, Fir Trees, and Christianity

Bringing branches and greenery into homes in the winter was found in many religions and goes back to ancient times. But linking the evergreen tree to Christianity (and then by association to Christmas) seems to have begun with an 8th century English missionary to Germany who later became known as St. Boniface.

Pagans and Oak Trees

Around 717 an English priest called Boniface went to Germany as a missionary and settled in the region of Hesse. The people there were pagans, and they worshipped at sacred trees. The main tree in the area was a large oak called the Donar Oak. Donar is the Old German word for the mythological, hammer-wielding god of thunder, also known as Thor or Jupiter.

According to legend, Boniface would call for people to come and hear him preach but he just couldn’t draw a crowd. Everyone was out worshiping at the big Donar Oak. Something had to be done. Boniface decided to prove to the locals once and for all that his God was mightier than theirs. So he announced a meeting at the Donar tree.

St. Boniface cutting down Donar Oak - Christmas Tree
St. Boniface chopping down the Donar Oak – Image in public domain

When everyone had gathered, Boniface pulled out an axe and started hacking at the tree’s trunk. But no one tried to stop him – they were just curious. The tree that represented their god looked much stronger than the scrawny little priest with an axe. They were just watching and waiting for Thor to throw down a thunderbolt and finish off the mad missionary.

But after Boniface had made only a few chops, a strong wind rushed through the forest and the mighty oak began to crack and lean. Thor’s devotees scattered as the representation of their god crashed to the ground.

Christians and Fir Trees

Then Boniface stood on the stump and said “See, I told you my God was stronger than yours.” Everyone was pretty impressed and converted to Christianity under Boniface’s instructions.

Then, miraculously, from the roots of that pagan oak tree, a fir tree sprang up. Since everyone was used to associating trees with religion, they immediately took the evergreen tree as a symbol of Christianity and everlasting life.

Church with evergreen tree beside it - Christmas Tree
Image in pubic domain

This legend explains the early connection of the fir tree with Christianity in Germany. As the new religion spread through the country, the evergreen tree went with it and soon became linked to the main Christian holiday of Christmas.

So it seems that an English missionary might have introduced the Germans to the idea of a Christmas tree – and the Germans took it from there…

16th Century: Martin Luther and Lighted, Indoor Trees

By the 16th century, decorated Christmas trees were being set up in guild halls and public squares in Germany. But most people weren’t bringing entire trees into their homes. They were putting up evergreen branches which they would decorate with apples, oranges, nuts, paper roses, etc.

One legend says that Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, was the first one to bring a tree indoors and light it with candles.

Christmas trees
Image in public domain

Stars and Candles

As the story goes, it was a cold, clear winter’s evening about 1536, and Martin was walking home through a forest of evergreen trees. He looked up toward the heavens to say a prayer, and his heart was stirred by the beauty of what he saw: a sea of stars twinkling through the green boughs. It was such a wonderful sight that he wanted to recreate it and share it with his wife and children.

So he found a small fir tree, dug it up and took it home. Mrs. Luther must have been surprised to see him walk in the door with a tree. He told her of his forest experience and they put the tree in a big tub and set it on a table. To represent the stars, they attached little candles to the branches.

Family around Christmas tree with candles
Family around a tree with candles – “The Christmas Tree” 1911 by Albert Chevallier Tayler – Image in public domain

Whether or not Martin Luther was truly the first one to bring a whole tree indoors and put candles on it, we can’t say for sure. However, we do know that it soon became a German Christmas tradition that has lasted until this day – with electric lights eventually replacing the candles, of course.

19th Century: British Royals and Christmas Trees

In 18th century England, people were still following the old tradition of bringing evergreen boughs inside and decorating them at Christmas time. Bringing a tree inside the home was considered a very German custom.

Queen Charlotte Brings Trees to the Nobles

Then in 1761, King George III of England married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She was German, and she was the one responsible for the first known Christmas tree in England. It was in Windsor in 1800, and Queen Charlotte was planning a big Christmas party for the children. She invited all the kiddies of the important families of Windsor.

Children around Christmas tree
Children around a Christmas tree hung with toys – 1877 by H. J. Overbeek – Image in public domain

The Queen thought a real German Christmas tree would be a wonderful surprise. So she had an evergreen tree potted up and placed in the middle of the drawing room in the Queen’s Lodge. It was hung with fruit, nuts and raisins wrapped in colorful paper, and small toys. Then little wax candles were attached to the branched to light it up.

It was a huge success with those who had seen it, and it was copied by many of the lords, dukes, and earls, the following year. Queen Charlotte was Queen Victoria’s grandmother, so Victoria would have had a Christmas tree in her home as a child.

Victoria and Albert Bring Trees to Everyone

So, in 1840 when newlyweds, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (her German cousin) set up their first Christmas tree together. It wasn’t anything new. All the upper class families had trees by then, but Christmas trees were still very much a novelty to the British public.

Victoria and Albert around Christmas tree
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children around 1850 – Image in public domain

That all changed in 1843 when several periodicals printed an image of the young Royal Family gathered around their Christmas tree. Along with the image, the magazines and newspapers described in detail how the royal tree was decorated. This Christmas commentary continued every year until the 1850s, and soon nearly every home in the UK had a decorated tree for Christmas.

In America, German immigrants had brought the Christmas tree custom with them, but the tradition wasn’t widespread. When American magazines also printed these royal Christmas images, Americans jumped on the Christmas tree bandwagon too.

Since the decorated trees were a German tradition and since Prince Albert was German, the public gave him credit for introducing the Christmas tree – “that pretty German Toy,” as Charles Dickens called it.

So it seems that the Christmas tree came full circle. It was introduced to the Germans by a British missionary. Then after the Germans perfected the Christmas tree tradition, they sent it back to the UK with the royal spouses.

Hope everyone is enjoying a happy holiday season!

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