• 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
Sudeten Germans give up 'right to homeland'
Sudeten Germans practising traditional dance at a gathering in 2014. Photo: DPA

Sudeten Germans give up 'right to homeland'

The Sudeten German Homeland Association has given up its claim to the group's former home in parts of the Czech Republic, quieting one of the final echoes of the Second World War. READ  

Minister draws fire over wage transparency plan
Families Minister Manuela Schwesig. Photo: DPA

Minister draws fire over wage transparency plan

Families Minister Manuela Schwesig confirmed on Sunday that she wants a new law allowing women to compare their wages with men doing similar work, provoking angry reactions from employers. READ  

Police wind down Bremen terror response
Heavily-armed police on patrol outside Bremen cathedral. Photo: DPA

Police wind down Bremen terror response

Police in Bremen said that the risk of a terrorist attack had been reduced in the city after they arrested two suspected arms dealers. The city remains under high alert, with special protection for the Jewish community. READ  

Germany's Schäuble softens Greece tone
Photo: DPA

Germany's Schäuble softens Greece tone

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said Sunday Greece's new hard-left government needs "a bit of time" but is committed to implementing necessary reforms to resolve its debt crisis. READ  

UK Pegida rally dwarfed by counter-demo
Photo: DPA

UK Pegida rally dwarfed by counter-demo

An estimated 375 people turned out for the Germany-based PEGIDA movement's first demonstration in Britain on Saturday, but were outnumbered by a 2,000-strong crowd of counter-protesters, police said. READ  

Greek PM vows to 'start working hard' after vote
Photo: DPA

Greek PM vows to 'start working hard' after vote

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras vowed Friday to "start working hard" to implement vital reforms in the stricken eurozone country, after Germany's parliament approved a four month extension to its bailout. READ  

Ukraine: troop deaths 'serious breach' of truce
Photo: DPA

Ukraine: troop deaths 'serious breach' of truce

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared the killing of three government troops by pro Moscow rebels a "serious breach of the ceasefire", during a telephone call Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, her office said. READ  

Man wins court battle over loud footsteps
Trouble at the top. Photo: DPA

Man wins court battle over loud footsteps

Germany's highest civil court ruled in favour of a man who swapped the carpet in his new apartment for parquet flooring, incurring the wrath of the retired couple who lived below him over his loud footsteps. READ  

Teachers to strike nationwide from Monday
Photo: DPA

Teachers to strike nationwide from Monday

Teachers all over the country are expected to stike starting Monday, German education trade union GEW said, after negotiations with the wage commission of the federal states (TdL) failed to achieve results. READ  

EU court deals blow to US Iraq objector's hopes
Andre Shepherd at the European Court of Justice in June 2014. Photo: DPA

EU court deals blow to US Iraq objector's hopes

American soldier Andre Shepherd, who applied for asylum in Germany as a conscientious objector against the war in Iraq after going AWOL from his unit, saw a judgement by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) go against him on Thursday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
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
Sponsored Article
Tourist or lifer: what sort of expat are you?
National
How Dresden bombing still divides Germany, 70 years on
Sponsored Article
Are you an American expat? How to face FATCA
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

3,160
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd