• Germany's news in English
 
The German roots of the Christmas tree
Photo: DPA

The German roots of the Christmas tree

Published: 20 Dec 2013 13:15 GMT+01:00

According to German wood industry association the HDH, Germans bought around 100,000 more trees in 2012 than 2011. But the mighty Tannenbaum is no passing trend. The first Christmas tree was planted around 500 years ago by Germans, and the tradition has grown stronger ever since.

For such an international phenomenon, the history of the Christmas tree remains mysterious to many. The historical roots of the Tannenbaum start with a group of young German merchants in the Baltic.

Christmas does of course have a pre-Christian history, and decorating the house during the dark winter months is a tradition that precedes Christianity, and its German connection, by thousands of years.

Many ancient societies included the custom of bringing evergreen plants into homes during the cold months as a reminder of the summer. From northern European Vikings, to the Romans and Ancient Egyptians, urging the sunny months back and warding off evil spirits with evergreens was commonplace.

Skip forward a millennium or so, and a more recognizable Christmas tree was beginning to take shape, thanks to a guild of German merchants who supposedly erected the first Weihnachtsbaum in 1510, in the Baltic city of Riga, Latvia.

Baltic birth

Stories describe the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried German merchants, erecting a spruce tree outside their headquarters during the winter and setting it on fire in a ritual celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the urging back of the warm weather. The plaque can still be seen today at the spot.

Riga was not only a powerful trading port, but a popular stop-off point for Christian pilgrims. The combination of foreigners missing home and devout religious pilgrims made it a hotspot for burgeoning Christmas traditions.

By the mid-16th century, young German men were setting up spruces in town squares then setting them alight as a regular part of the winter festivities. The trees would often be decorated beforehand with nuts, paper flowers, and pretzels.

These trees became more widespread across Germany and Scandinavia, with families placing trees outside their houses, in a similar vein to their ancient predecessors.

As decorating the trees became increasingly popular, families began to bring their festive creations indoors. Children would often raid the tree for its edible decorations on Christmas Eve, and soon presents were put beneath them.

The introduction of the Christmas tree to the US can also be credited to Germans. Reports suggest that German settlers in Pennsylvania and Ohio put up the first American Christmas trees in the 18th century.

It took a while for the custom to spread through the country, however, as the Puritan movement managed to force a ban on Christmas trees into the 19th century.

Viral, Victorian-style

But as Puritanism waned, it was the power of the celebrity that finally brought the Christmas tree transatlantic popularity, when a picture of Queen Victoria, with her German husband Prince Albert and their family with a Christmas tree was published.

The picture went viral, at least in Victorian terms, and soon enough people were clamouring to get a tree of their very own - a tradition which would be repeated year after year until the present day.

The man behind the Queen’s continental Christmas choice was none other than her German husband, Prince Albert, who apparently longed for a reminder of home in the palace during the festive season.

The average German household spends around €17 on a Christmas tree measuring 1.63 metres, 70 percent of which were grown in Germany itself.

Last year, a growing trend for having a second tree outside in the garden, or balcony, as well as more lone-dwellers buying trees, pushed sales up, said HDH head Dirk-Uwe Klaas.

So when you're diving into the presents nestling underneath the tree this year, spare a thought for the Blackheads, who unknowingly helped to create one of the most iconic festive images all those years ago in Riga.

The Local/DAPD/jcw

For more stories about Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Deutsche Bank to sell Postbank
Deutsche Bank acquired Postbank in 2008. Photo: DPA

Deutsche Bank to sell Postbank

Germany's biggest lender Deutsche Bank announced late Friday it was seeking to sell its Postbank subsidiary as part of a revamp to improve profitability. READ  

Far left activists attack immigration office
Photo: DPA

Far left activists attack immigration office

Far-left extremists attacked an immigration office in Leipzig early on Friday morning. It was the second targeted attack on an official building in the city in recent months. READ  

Steinmeier: Armenia wasn't genocide
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Photo:DPA

Steinmeier: Armenia wasn't genocide

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier insisted on Friday that calling Armenian massacres genocide risks belittling the Holocaust, after President Joachim Gauck broke a taboo by using the word on Thursday. READ  

Schumacher Jr launches Formula race career
Mick Schumacher on test day earlier in April. Photo: DPA

Schumacher Jr launches Formula race career

Michael Schumacher's 16-year-old son starts his Formula Four career this weekend, under the pressure of living up to the famous family name of the seven-time Formula One world champion. READ  

Property of the week
In Pictures: The Local's Property of the Week
Photo: Mr Lodge

In Pictures: The Local's Property of the Week

A highly sought-after location, great connection to public transport, and a very stylish interior – Does that sound good to you? Then you’ll love this week’s property! READ  

Germany's most polluted cities
The sun rises behind a coal-burning power station in Lower Saxony. Photo: DPA

Germany's most polluted cities

The Federal Environment Ministry has named the most polluted places around the country, with Stuttgart claiming the undesirable title of Germany's most polluted city. READ  

Göring's daughter fails in bid to win father's assets
Edda Göring photographed in 1942. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Göring's daughter fails in bid to win father's assets

The Bavarian government rejected on Thursday an attempt by Hermann Göring's daughter to win back her father's assets, which the government seized in 1948. READ  

Tugce accused admits to delivering fatal blow
Tugce Albayrak's death shocked Germany. Photo:DPA

Tugce accused admits to delivering fatal blow

When 22-year-old Tugce Albayrak was fatally beaten in a MacDonald's car park in November 2014, Germany was left in a state of shock. On the first day of her attacker's trial he admits to 'boxing her on the ear.' READ  

Prosecutors want info on spies' help to US
Gerhard Schindler, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency. Photo: DPA

Prosecutors want info on spies' help to US

Federal prosecutors have asked for access on files from the Bundestag (German parliament) inquiry into mass surveillance, after news that German spies helped the US eavesdrop on European leaders and businesses. READ  

Greece bailout
Merkel and Tsipras tight-lipped on Brussels talks
Chancellor Merkel and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. Photo:DPA

Merkel and Tsipras tight-lipped on Brussels talks

Chancellor Merkel and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras met in Brussles on Thursday in what the Chancellor described as “constructive” talks. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Gallery
German beer day: take the tour
Features
Off to Norway at 18 km/hour
Shutterstock
Sponsored Article
10 things you didn’t know about Zagreb (and why you should go)
Gallery
The smileys Germans love to text
Sponsored Article
What expat parents should ask before choosing a school
National
Expats face Monday deadline to register to vote for UK election
Politics
A Greek learning politics in Germany
Features
The battle of the "Gates of Berlin"
National
Germany's favourite baby names of 2014
National
Germany's 'very poor' lobbying record
National
VIDEO: Mario Draghi suffers anti-ECB confetti attack
Politics
Merkel's 15 years at the top of German politics
Features
Spice up asparagus season with The Local's serving suggestions
Travel
Lowest of the low: how woman exploited Germanwings crash
Sport
Football and the €30,000 firework
Technology
Why scientists oppose killer robots
National
Germanwings co-pilot 'searched suicide info'
Technology
Electrifying 'Ostalgia'
National
Which city is Germany's worst for drivers?
National
'Cannibal cop' gets 8 years
Can the 'nightmare' of a pilot downing a plane be prevented?
National
LIVE: Co-pilot suspected of crashing plane
Pupils mourn lost classmates
National
Freed after 25 years on death row
National
Cologne Cathedral returns from space
Features
Paddy's Day, Berlin style
Is your workload 'out of control'? You're not alone...
National
Why east Germans are happy to get it on on camera
National
What would you do with a 250-year-old pretzel?
Features
Just why is the German flag Schwarz, Rot, Gold?
Business & Money
Getting German workers and bosses thinking positive
National
Uplifting thoughts to get you through the last week of winter
National
Who wants the Olympics more - Hamburg or Berlin?
National
Last-minute drama of Germany's Eurovision 2015 entry
National
German photographer takes world's top prize
Features
Meet the woman getting Germans to drink more – and better – beer
Gallery
Get inspired for International Women's Day with German heroes
Green party proposes first-ever cannabis legalization plan
Gallery
In pictures: Germany's seven most livable cities
National
Singapore canes Germans for train graffiti
Politics
Surprise! Germans love feeling like they run the EU
Politics
Anger over plan to show women what men earn
Travel
Munich tram fans bicker over new bell
Features
Kafka: puzzling translators 100 years on
Business & Money
France or Germany: Which country really is the best country to work in?
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

7,216
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd