• 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
Interior ministry bans Salafist group
Thomas de Maizière. Photo: DPA

Interior ministry bans Salafist group

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière ordered the dissolving of salafist organisation Tauhid Germany on Thursday, saying that the group radicalized youth and encouraged them to travel to Syria to fight for Isis. READ  

New minute of silence for Germanwings victims
MPs in the Bundestag (German parliament) fall silent for a minute before beginning the day's work. Photo: DPA

New minute of silence for Germanwings victims

Germans again took a few moments on Thursday to remember those killed in the Germanwings flight 4U9525 plane crash on Tuesday. READ  

Ukraine refugees make tracks to Germany
Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland by plane. Photo: DPA

Ukraine refugees make tracks to Germany

Germany received one of the highest numbers of Ukrainian asylum seekers in Europe last year, according to data released last week by Eurostat and analyzed by The Local. READ  

Merkel must be firm with Modi: Amnesty
Narendra Modi. Photo: DPA

Merkel must be firm with Modi: Amnesty

Speaking to the The Local ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Germany next month, Amnesty International warned that his poor record on human rights must factor into the talks. READ  

Alps plane crash
Höwedes takes focus off football
Photo: DPA

Höwedes takes focus off football

Germany defender Benedikt Höwedes held up a sign in memory of children from his home town killed in the Germanwings plane crash before a friendly against Australia on Wednesday night. READ  

'Space stone' brought back to Cologne
Alexander Gerst and Mayor of Cologne Jürgen Roters. Photo: Stadt Köln

'Space stone' brought back to Cologne

German astronaut Alexander Gerst visited the Cologne city hall on Wednesday to present a special gift – a stone from the city's famous cathedral that he'd taken into space with him. READ  

Germanwings crash
Germany mourns for 4U9525 victims
A German flag flying at half mast at the Bundestag (German parliament) Photo: DPA

Germany mourns for 4U9525 victims

Flags flew at half mast across Germany on Wednesday in memory of the people killed in Tuesday's crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525. READ  

Business confidence hits 8-month high

Business confidence hits 8-month high

German business confidence rose to its highest level in eight months in March, as optimism continues to grow about the outlook for Europe's biggest economy, the Ifo economic institute said on Wednesday. READ  

Germanwings crash
German cops, lawyers join crash probe
Photo: DPA

German cops, lawyers join crash probe

State prosecutors from Düsseldorf and federal police forensics experts are on their way to France to join in the investigation into crashed Germanwings flight 4U9525. READ  

Berliner freed after 25 years on death row
Debra Milke at a press conference in Pheonix on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Berliner freed after 25 years on death row

A Berlin-born woman who spent 25 years in a US jail accused of participating in the murder of her son spoke publicly about her experience on Tuesday, the first time since her release. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Pupils mourn lost classmates
National
Freed after 25 years on death row
National
Cologne Cathedral returns from space
National
Germanwings co-pilot was 'locked out of cockpit' before crash
Sponsored Article
What expat parents should ask before choosing a school
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
Sponsored Article
Expert US tax preparation for Americans in Germany
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?
Photo: Police
Rhineland
Student driver crashes tank into family garden.
Photo: DPA
Politics
There was a notable absence at the Anti-Semitism Commission
National
How Dresden bombing still divides Germany, 70 years on
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Take a cute break with this gallery of baby animals
International
What's keeping UK expats from voting?
Photo: DPA
National
Terror alert at a new high. Should you be worried?
Gallery
The best regional foods TTIP opponents want to protect
Photo: DPA
Features
All you ever needed to know about Pegida
Photo: Shutterstock
Culture
This cosplayer did not think his plan through
National
Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Gallery
Top 12 German idioms
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
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

7,178
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd