Pumpkin Hill Farm
The Origins of the Christmas Tree

The custom of a Christmas tree, undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany, in the first half of the 700s.

The earliest story relates how British monk and missionary St. Boniface (born Winfrid in A.D. 680) was preaching a sermon on the Nativity to a tribe of Germanic Druids outside the town of Geismar. To convince the idolaters that the oak tree was not sacred and inviolable, the "Apostle of Germany" felled one on the spot. Toppling, it crushed every shrub in its path except for a small fir sapling. A chance event can lend itself to numerous interpretations, and legend has it that Boniface, attempting to win converts, interpreted the fir’s survival as a miracle, concluding, "Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child." Subsequent Christmases in Germany were celebrated by planting fir saplings.

We do know with greater authority that by the sixteenth century, fir trees, indoors and out, were decorated to commemorate Christmas in Germany. A forest ordinance from Ammerschweier, Alsace, dated 1561, states that "no burgher shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes’ length." The decorations hung on a tree in that time, the earliest we have evidence of, were "roses cut of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gilt, sugar."

It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

By the 1700s, the Christbaum, or "Christ tree," was a firmly established tradition. From Germany the custom spread to other parts of Western Europe. It was popularized in England only in the nineteenth century, by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German consort. Son of the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (a duchy in central Germany), Albert had grown up decorating Christmas trees, and when he married Victoria, in 1840, he requested that she adopt the German tradition.

The claim of the Pennsylvania Germans to have initiated the Christmas tree custom in America is undisputed today. And it’s in the diary of Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, under the date December 20, 1821, that the Christmas tree and its myriad decorations received their first mention in the New World.

It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The Pilgrims’ second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event."

In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the nineteenth century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy. In 1856, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow commented: "we are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so." In that year, Christmas was made a legal holiday in Massachusetts, the last state to uphold Cromwell’s philosophy.

Interestingly, Godey’s Lady’s Book, the women’s publication of the 1800s that did so much to nationalize Thanksgiving, also played a role in popularizing festive Christmas practices. Through its lighthearted and humorous drawings, its household-decorating hints, its recipes for Christmas confections and meals, and its instructions for homemade tree ornaments, the magazine convinced thousands of housewives that the Nativity was not just a fervent holy day but could also be a festive holiday.   Xmas. The familiar abbreviation for Christmas originated in the Greeks. X is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Xristos. By the sixteenth century, "Xmas" was popular throughout Europe. Whereas early Christians had understood that the term merely was Greek for "Christ’s mass," later Christians, unfamiliar with the Greek reference, mistook the X as a sign of disrespect, an attempt by heathens to rid Christmas of its central meaning. For several hundred years, Christians disapproved of the use of the term. Some still do.

From an book called, Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati: Harper & Row.