One of the best parts of Christmas for children and adults alike is getting to decorate the tree – and we aren’t the only ones. The history of Christmas trees stretches as far back as the Ancient Egyptians and Romans, with their use of evergreens to celebrate the winter solstice, right up to the German tradition of alighting fir trees with small candles and hanging decorations.
Christmas trees are now arguably more popular than they have ever been in the past, with members of the British Tree Growers Organisation selling around six to eight million to the nation each year.  Coupled with the fact that, globally, there are eighty-five million Christmas trees grown in preparation for every winter, it’s safe to say that we are a society who really loves this tradition. Today, we will be exploring the long history of this exciting tradition, why we have Christmas trees in the U.K and how other countries incorporate trees into their celebrations – so let’s go back in time!
How Did Christmas Trees Start?
Although the coming of Christianity popularised Christmas, there are similar traditions for the winter season dating back millions of years. Civilizations held plants and trees that stayed green all year round in high regard before the creation of Christianity. People would hang evergreen boughs over their windows and doors because they believed the long-lasting trees would protect them. It was thought that they would prevent illness within the house and ward away evil spirits, witches and ghosts.
Ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians and the Vikings believed that winter came because their sun Gods had gotten ill. During winter solstice, they would celebrate with evergreens because it meant the days would be getting longer again. This, the longest night of the year, meant that their sun gods were beginning to heal and regain their strength. The evergreen trees, which stayed bright green through winter, served as a reminder that their sun God would get better. This mean that spring would soon be back and their crops would be able to start growing once more.
For the Ancient Egyptian Sun God Ra, the people filled their homes with green palm rushes when the solstice began. These leaves symbolised to them the triumph of life over death.
The Romans hosted a feast for their agricultural God Saturn, which they called Saturnalia. Since summer would mean their farms would be fruitful again, they celebrated by decorating their homes and temples with evergreens.
Historians can tell little about the mysterious Celtic druids, but there’s evidence that evergreens were symbolic to them. It’s believed they decorated their temples with evergreen boughs to represent immortality and life-after-death.
For the Scandinavian Vikings, evergreens represented the promise of new life, and that spring would soon be back to them. They believed evergreens were the special plant of their sun God, Balder. To encourage Balder to bring a new spring, they decorated these trees with food and carvings of the God.
When Did Christmas Trees As We Know Them Today Become Popular?
Christmas trees as we know them today started in 15th century Germany. The town bakers of Freiburg brought a fir tree inside and decorated it with fruit, nuts and baked products. Their children then removed and ate all the treats on New Year’s Day. By the 16th century, many German Christians brought decorated trees into their homes each year. Poorer families erected small, wooden pyramid structures that they could decorate with evergreen boroughs and candles if trees were scarce.
A well-known tale tells of how a 16th-century Protestant priest was the first to decorate a Christmas tree with lights. When walking home one evening, Martin Luther was amazed by the stars he could see sparkling through the tall branches of the evergreen trees and rushed home to tell his family. He recreated the scene for them with a tree in their main room. Using candles amidst the branches, Luther lit up the tree so his children could enjoy the sight that he’d witnessed.
How Did Christmas Trees Come To The UK?
Despite the traditionally told story, it wasn’t during Queen Victoria’s reign that we first saw Christmas trees in Britain. They were actually introduced by the German wife of King George III, Charlotte Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who brought the tradition over to the UK when she married the King. She set up the first public Christmas tree in December 1800, when the Royal household threw a party for the children of the well-to-do families of the nation. The tree was decorated with lighted candles, sweetmeats, almonds, raisins, fruits and toys, and the children were awestruck at the sight of it. At the end of the night, all the children got to take some of the treats home for themselves.
It wasn’t long before the upper-class families took on this tradition for themselves. They used yews, box trees, pines and firs to decorate their own homes. Among the lucky children who got to experience this new custom was a young Alexandrina Victoria. Queen Victoria widely popularised the tradition of Christmas trees during her reign. Her husband, Prince Albert, was of German heritage, and he made it fashionable for everyone to bring Christmas trees into their homes. Unfortunately, the trees grown in the U.K were considerably small, so they served as a centrepiece at dining tables. However, when the option to import larger trees from Norway became available, they were placed on the floor above the gifts.
Modern Day Christmas Trees
Every year since 1947, Oslo in Norway has given London a magnificent Christmas tree as gratitude for Britain’s support during World War II. Each season, this tree stands proudly in Trafalgar Square, decorated with bright lights and a shining star. Many people gather to watch the lights switched on, and it is a tradition that many families enjoy each year.
Many of us still decorate our Christmas trees as the Germans did in the 16th century, though in place of candles and fruit we have lights and baubles. Artificial trees are more popular than real evergreens these days, with a whopping 74% opting for a fake tree each year. First sold in the 1920s, artificial trees were initially made from dyed ostrich feathers. Then, ten years later, bristle trees became popular because they looked like real fir trees, but avoided shedding needles. These trees were actually made from the same bristles they used to make toilet brushes! Now, we produce artificial trees using steel frames covered in strips of PVC cut to look like needles. Trees have been made this way since the 1980s.
With the popularity of Christmas trees mounting, the amount of waste we throw away after the season is also rising. We throw away eight million Christmas trees each year – that’s a colossal 12 tonnes of waste – and 14% of people throw away their artificial Christmas trees each year.
For a sparkling new artificial tree just in time for the festive season, why not take a look at our Christmas trees? We stock a selection of fake Christmas trees, from table top sizes to giant fir replicas, so we guarantee you’ll find what you need with us.
Christmas Trees Around The World
If their country celebrates it at all, people honour Christmas in different ways all around the world. Many of these include versions of Christmas tree, and here are some of the most interesting ways that countries around the globe incorporate Christmas trees in their yearly celebrations.
In South Africa
Celebrated during their summertime, South African people honour Christmas by decorating windows with tinsel and glittering cotton wool. Christmas trees have become quite common throughout the country in public and family spaces. They are decorated with beautiful fairy light displays, baubles, tinsel, and fake snow.
Most Mexican families focus their holiday decoration around their el Nacimiento, or Nativity scene. They often include bedecked Christmas trees in these scenes, and others can be found around the house.
Another summer celebration, Christmas in Brazil is often honoured with pine trees covered with small cotton pieces to symbolise fresh snow.
Swedish people bring evergreen trees inside only a few days before Christmas in Sweden. They then decorate them with sunbursts, stars, coloured animals, and straw snowflakes.
In Norway, parents decorate the Christmas tree behind a closed door while the children wait outside in anticipation. When the children have seen the tree, the family carry out a ritual known as ‘circling the Christmas tree’. This is where everyone joins hands and circles around the tree singing.
Families erect a wooden structure several feet high in the shape of a pyramid as the centre of an Italian Christmas. The bottom tier of this pyramid is filled with a recreation of Jesus in the manger, and the rest of the structure is decorated with coloured paper, glittery pine cones, banners and small candles.
A loved Christmas tradition across the nation, Spanish children often take part in Catalonia. They strike the trunk of a tree filled with sweets and toys, trying to knock out the treats.
Those who celebrate Christmas in Japan decorate their trees decadently. Using dolls, small toys, candles, paper ornaments, wind chimes and gold paper lanterns and fans, Japanese people spare no expense with their Christmas tree. Often, they also place origami swans on their tree, a national symbol of peace.
From the early Ancient Egyptians to modern-day families, the Christmas tree is a much-loved part of the festive season. Whether its branches represent a sun god, Jesus Christ, or just the pure joy of the season, a Christmas tree is a timeless way to share the joy of the season – and now you know how we came to have them!
Do you have any of your own Christmas tree traditions? Let us know in the comments below!