• Germany's news in English

The German roots of the Christmas tree

The Local · 20 Dec 2013, 13:15

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

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

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 news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Deutsche Bank reports surprise quarter billion profit
Photo: DPA

Troubled German lender Deutsche Bank reported Thursday a surprise €256-million profit in the third quarter, compared with a loss of more than six billion in the same period last year.

US 'warned Merkel' against Chinese takeover of tech firm
Aixtron HQ. Photo: DPA

The German government withdrew its approval for a Chinese firm to purchase Aixtron, which makes semiconductor equipment, after the US secret services raised security concerns, a German media report said Wednesday.

Long-vanished German car brand joins electric race
Photo: DPA

Cars bearing the stamp of once-defunct manufacturer Borgward will once again roll off an assembly line in north Germany from 2018, the firm said Wednesday.

Eurowings cabin crew union to strike all day Thursday
Photo: DPA.

UPDATE: A union representing cabin crews on Lufthansa's budget airline Eurowings has announced that strikes will last all day Thursday as ongoing contract negotiations continue to falter.

Hesse hopes to set example by building Iraqi orphanages
Refugee children in northern Iraq. Photo: DPA

The wealthy central German state of Hesse has set aside €1 million to build a school, family homes and an orphanage in northern Iraq, in an effort to help refugees there.

The Local List
10 German clichés that foreigners get very wrong
David Hasselhoff. Photo: DPA

Whether it be efficiency, humourlessness or a love of a certain Baywatch star, there are many cliches stuck in the heads of foreigners about Germany. But how true are they?

Fake Germanwings victim relative convicted in Cologne
A torn piece of metal at the crash site in 2015. Photo: DPA

A German court on Wednesday gave a woman a year's suspended jail sentence for posing as the cousin of a victim in last year's Germanwings plane crash and obtaining compensation offered by the airline.

Couple accused of torturing, murdering women go on trial
The so-called 'house of horrors' in Höxter where the couple allegedly tortured and killed women. Photo: DPA.

A couple accused of luring women to their village home with personal ads started trial on Wednesday over charges that they tortured and killed at least two of their victims.

After July attacks, govt drafts new video surveillance law
Photo: DPA

The Interior Ministry is drafting a law which will enable public spaces to be filmed for surveillance purposes as a reaction to deadly attacks in July, according to a newspaper report.

Merkel: murky internet giants distort perception of reality
Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Tuesday for internet giants to make public their closely-guarded algorithms, claiming that they are not giving people diverse enough information.

10 ways German completely messes up your English
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Germany's 10 most weird and wonderful landmarks
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd