A Month of Christmas: The Christmas Tree

Isle of Man - Scott #1172 (2006)
Isle of Man – Scott #1172 (2006)

The teaching agency that I work for is located at a large shopping mall in the center of Phuket island, Thailand. For several years, a huge Christmas tree would be installed in late November directly outside of our entrance. Two or three years ago, this tree went airborne during a massive windstorm and pieces of it littered the nearby streets for quite some distance. In October of this year, a new super-mall opened across the street (owned by the same company) and suffered a fire not long after when workers ignited a volcano attraction nearing completion. Tonight, next to that volcano and with much fanfare, a gigantic Christmas tree (which the mall is calling the “World-Play Tree” is receiving its lighting ceremony. We all hope that it’s bolted down better than the previous tree and that it’s made of fire-retardant material. At any rate, with the hoopla and hype surrounding this Christmas tree lighting (and, yes, more than 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist), it seemed like a natural topic for today’s ASAD article. Unfortunately, a heavy thunderstorm has rolled into town so I’ll have to photograph the tree some other evening.

A Christmas tree is a decorated tree, usually an evergreen conifer such as spruce, pine, or fir or an artificial tree of similar appearance, associated with the celebration of Christmas. The modern Christmas tree was developed in medieval Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) and early modern Germany, where Protestant Germans brought decorated trees into their homes. It acquired popularity beyond the Lutheran areas of Germany and the Baltic countries during the second half of the 19th century, at first among the upper classes.

Christmas trees flanking the interior stairs of the front entrance to Ocean Terminal, Harbour City, Hong Kong. Photo taken on November 2 2013.
Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, London, England. Photo taken on December 6, 2008.

The tree was traditionally decorated with “roses made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, [and] sweetmeats”. In the 18th century, it began to be illuminated by candles, which were ultimately replaced by Christmas lights after the advent of electrification. Today, there is a wide variety of traditional ornaments, such as garlands, baubles, tinsel, and candy canes. An angel or star might be placed at the top of the tree to represent the Angel Gabriel or the Star of Bethlehem, respectively, from the Nativity.[5][6] Edible items such as gingerbread, chocolate and other sweets are also popular and are tied to or hung from the tree’s branches with ribbons.

In the Western Christian tradition, Christmas trees are variously erected on days such as the first day of Advent or even as late as Christmas Eve depending on the country; customs of the same faith hold that the two traditional days when Christmas decorations, such as the Christmas tree, are removed are Twelfth Night and, if they are not taken down on that day, Candlemas, the latter of which ends the Christmas-Epiphany season in some denominations. My personal tradition the last several years that I lived in the United States was to remove the tree on Super Bowl Sunday prior to the big football game. Upon moving to Thailand, I installed a tree in my home for the first two or three years and took it down on Valentine’s Day! I no longer bother with my own tree…

The Christmas tree is sometimes compared with the “Yule-tree”, especially in discussions of its folkloric origins.

Father and son with their dog collecting a tree in the forest, painting by Franz Krüger (1797–1857)

The most commonly used species are fir (Abies), which have the benefit of not shedding their needles when they dry out, as well as retaining good foliage color and scent; but species in other genera are also used. Various types of spruce tree are also used for Christmas trees (including the blue spruce and, less commonly, the white spruce); but spruces begin to lose their needles rapidly upon being cut, and spruce needles are often sharp, making decorating uncomfortable.

Some trees, frequently referred to as “living Christmas trees”, are sold live with roots and soil, often from a plant nursery, to be stored at nurseries in planters or planted later outdoors and enjoyed (and often decorated) for years or decades. European tradition prefers the open aspect of naturally grown, unsheared trees, while in North America (outside western areas where trees are often wild-harvested on public lands) there is a preference for close-sheared trees with denser foliage, but less space to hang decorations.

In the past, Christmas trees were often harvested from wild forests, but now almost all are commercially grown on tree farms. Almost all Christmas trees in the United States are grown on Christmas tree farms where they are cut after about ten years of growth and new trees planted. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s agriculture census for 2007, 21,537 farms were producing conifers for the cut Christmas tree market in America, 1,412,724 acres (5,717.09 square kilometers) were planted in Christmas trees. Up until I was around nine or ten years old, my family had a small ranch on the Kickapoo Creek near Tyler, Texas, on which we grew evergreen trees and had to be on guard for people trying to cut them down for use as Christmas trees. For our own Christmas tree, we usually bought live trees at markets in town with my dad invariably choosing the scrawniest tree imaginable as he “felt sorry for it”.

Glade jul (“Happy Christmas”) canvas and oil painting by Viggo Johansen, 1891. Currently part of the Hirschsprung Collection (Den Hirschsprungske Samling), an art museum located on Stockholmsgade in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The relevance of ancient pre-Christian customs to the 16th-century German initiation of the Christmas tree custom is disputed. Resistance to the custom was often because of its supposed Lutheran origins. Other sources have offered a connection between the first documented Christmas trees in Alsace around 1600 and pre-Christian traditions. For example, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica,

The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmas time.”

During the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, houses were decorated with wreaths of evergreen plants, along with other antecedent customs now associated with Christmas.

The modern Christmas tree is frequently traced to the symbolism of trees in pre-Christian winter rites, wherein Viking and Saxon worshiped trees. The story of Saint Boniface cutting down Donar’s Oak illustrates the pagan practices in 8th century among the Germans. A later folk version of the story adds the detail that an evergreen tree grew in place of the felled oak, telling them about how its triangular shape reminds humanity of the Trinity and how it points to heaven.

Christmas tree depicted as Christmas card by Prang & Co. (Boston) 1880

Alternatively, it is identified with the “tree of paradise” of medieval mystery plays that were given on 24 December, the commemoration and name day of Adam and Eve in various countries. In such plays, a tree decorated with apples (to represent the forbidden fruit) and wafers (to represent the Eucharist and redemption) was used as a setting for the play. Like the Christmas crib, the Paradise tree was later placed in homes. The apples were replaced by round objects such as shiny red balls.

At the end of the Middle Ages, an early predecessor appears referred in the Regiment of the Order of Cister around 1400, in Alcobaça, Portugal. The Regiment of the local high-Sacristans of the Cistercian Order refers to what may be considered one of the oldest references to the Christmas tree:

Note on how to put the Christmas branch, scilicet: On the Christmas eve, you will look for a large Branch of green laurel, and you shall reap many red oranges, and place them on the branches that come of the laurel, specifically as you have seen, and in every orange you shall put a candle, and hang the Branch by a rope in the pole, which shall be by the candle of the altar-mor.”

Modern Christmas trees originated during the Renaissance of early modern Germany. Its 16th-century origins are sometimes associated with Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther, who is said to have first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree. The first recorded Christmas tree can be found on the keystone sculpture of a private home in Turckheim, Alsace (then part of Germany, today France), dating to 1576.

Chichilaki, a Georgian Christmas tree variety. Photo taken by Irma Laghadze on January 2, 2013.

Georgians have their own traditional Christmas tree called Chichilaki, made from dried up hazelnut or walnut branches that are shaped to form a small coniferous tree. These pale-colored ornaments differ in height from 7.9 inches (20 cm) to 9.8 feet (3 meters). Chichilaki are most common in the Guria and Samegrelo regions of Georgia near the Black Sea, but they can also be found in some stores around the capital of Tbilisi. Georgians believe that Chichilaki resembles the famous beard of St. Basil the Great, because Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates St. Basil on January 1.

Customs of erecting decorated trees in wintertime can be traced to Christmas celebrations in Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany and Livonia. The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guildhalls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia), in 1441, 1442, 1510 and 1514, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Reval (now Tallinn) and Riga. On the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square, where the members of the brotherhood danced around it.

A Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 reports that a small tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers” was erected in the guild-house for the benefit of the guild members’ children, who collected the dainties on Christmas Day. In 1584, the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow in his Chronica der Provinz Lyfflandt (1584) wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square, where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”.

Christmas tree in Bethlehem, behind it Church of the Nativity. Photo taken on January 18, 2014. العربية: شَجرة عيد الميلاد في مدينة بيت لحم الفلسطينية وَخلفُها كنيسة المَهد، الصورة تم التقاطها في 18 يناير 2014

After the Protestant Reformation, such trees are seen in the houses of upper-class Protestant families as a counterpart to the Catholic Christmas cribs. This transition from the guild hall to the bourgeois family homes in the Protestant parts of Germany ultimately gives rise to the modern tradition as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the early 18th century, the custom had become common in towns of the upper Rhineland, but it had not yet spread to rural areas. Wax candles, expensive items at the time, are found in attestations from the late 18th century.

Along the lower Rhine, an area of Roman Catholic majority, the Christmas tree was largely regarded as a Protestant custom. As a result, it remained confined to the upper Rhineland for a relatively long period of time. The custom did eventually gain wider acceptance beginning around 1815 by way of Prussian officials who emigrated there following the Congress of Vienna. In the 19th century, the Christmas tree was taken to be an expression of German culture and of Gemütlichkeit (a word used to convey the idea of a state or feeling of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer), especially among emigrants overseas.

A decisive factor in winning general popularity was the German army’s decision to place Christmas trees in its barracks and military hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War. Only at the start of the 20th century did Christmas trees appear inside churches, this time in a new brightly lit form.

A little Christmas tree on the table, painting by Ludwig Blume-Siebert in 1888

In the early 19th century, the custom became popular among the nobility and spread to royal courts as far as Russia. Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg introduced the Christmas tree to Vienna in 1816, and the custom spread across Austria in the following years. In France, the first Christmas tree was introduced in 1840 by the duchesse d’Orléans. In Denmark a Danish newspaper claims that the first attested Christmas tree was lit in 1808 by countess Wilhemine of Holsteinborg. It was the aging countess who told the story of the first Danish Christmas tree to the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen in 1865. He had published a fairy-tale called The Fir-Tree in 1844, recounting the fate of a fir-tree being used as a Christmas tree.

Although the tradition of decorating churches and homes with evergreens at Christmas was long established, the custom of decorating an entire small tree was unknown in Britain the early 19th century. George III’s German-born wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced a Christmas tree at a party she gave for children in 1800. The custom did not at first spread much beyond the royal family. Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with it and a tree was placed in her room every Christmas. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote:

After dinner… we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…

Christmas tree painting 1877 by H. J. Overbeek Woonkamer vol keurig geklede kinderen die bij de kerstboom dansen. Uit: H. J. Overbeek, De kerstboom en andere verhalen, 1877. Signatuur: KW BJ Z2141

By 1841, the custom became even more widespread as wealthier middle-class families followed the fashion. In 1842 a newspaper advert for Christmas trees makes clear their smart cachet, German origins and association with children and gift-giving. An illustrated book, The Christmas Tree, describing their use and origins in detail, was on sale in December 1844. On January 2, 1846, Elizabeth Fielding (née Fox Strangways) wrote from Laycock Abbey to William Henry Fox-Talbot:

Constance is extremely busy preparing the Bohemian Xmas Tree. It is made from Caroline’s description of those she saw in Germany“.

In 1847, Prince Albert — the German-born husband of Queen Victoria — wrote:

I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.”

The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle published in The Illustrated London News, 1848

A boost to the trend was given in 1848 when The Illustrated London News, in a report picked up by other newspapers, described the trees in Windsor Castle in detail and showed the main tree, surrounded by the royal family, on its cover. In fewer than ten years, their use in better-off homes was widespread. By 1856, a northern provincial newspaper contained an advert alluding casually to them, as well as reporting the accidental death of a woman whose dress caught fire as she lit the tapers on a Christmas tree. They had not yet spread down the social scale though, as a report from Berlin in 1858 contrasts the situation there where “Every family has its own” with that of Britain, where Christmas trees were still the preserve of the wealthy or the “romantic”.

Their use at public entertainments, charity bazaars and in hospitals made them increasingly familiar however, and in 1906 a charity was set up specifically to ensure even poor children in London slums ‘who had never seen a Christmas tree’ would enjoy one that year. Anti-German sentiment after World War I briefly reduced their popularity but the effect was short-lived and by the mid-1920s the use of Christmas trees had spread to all classes. In 1933, a restriction on the importation of foreign trees led to the “rapid growth of a new industry” as the growing of Christmas trees within Britain became commercially viable due to the size of demand. By 2013, the number of trees grown in Britain for the Christmas market was approximately 8 million and their display in homes, shops and public spaces a normal part of the Christmas season.

The tradition was introduced to North America in the winter of 1781 by Hessian soldiers stationed in the Province of Québec to garrison the colony against American attack. General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel, held a Christmas party for the officers at Sorel, delighting their guests with a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.

First published image of a Christmas tree, frontispiece to Hermann Bokum’s 1836 “The Stranger’s Gift”.

The Christmas tree became very common in the United States in the early nineteenth century. The first image of a Christmas tree was published in 1836 as the frontispiece to The Stranger’s Gift by Hermann Bokum. The first mention of the Christmas tree in American literature was in a story in the 1836 edition of The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, titled “New Year’s Day,” by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, where she tells the story of a German maid decorating her mistress’s tree.

A woodcut of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, initially published in The Illustrated London News for December 1848, was copied in the United States at Christmas 1850, in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Godey’s copied it exactly, except for the removal of the Queen’s tiara and Prince Albert’s mustache, to remake the engraving into an American scene. The republished Godey’s image became the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America. Art historian Karal Ann Marling called Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, shorn of their royal trappings, “the first influential American Christmas tree”. Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, “In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850–60 than Godey’s Lady’s Book“. The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become even more common in America.

Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country’s first Christmas tree: Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, while the “First Christmas Tree in America” is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816. In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821, leading Lancaster to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Other accounts credit Charles Follen, a German immigrant to Boston, for being the first to introduce to America the custom of decorating a Christmas tree.

Illustration for Harper’s Bazaar, published January 1, 1870. John Whetten Ehninger, American, 1827–1889. Block: 34.9 x 23 cm (13 3/4 x 9 1/16 in.). Wood engraving,.

August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, is said to be the first to popularize the practice of decorating a tree with candy canes. In 1847, Imgard cut a blue spruce tree from a woods outside town, had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments, gilded nuts and Kuchen. German immigrant Charles Minnegerode accepted a position as a professor of humanities at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1842, where he taught Latin and Greek. Entering into the social life of the Virginia Tidewater, Minnigerode introduced the German custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas at the home of law professor St. George Tucker, thereby becoming another of many influences that prompted Americans to adopt the practice at about that time.

An 1853 article on Christmas customs in Pennsylvania defines them as mostly “German in origin”, including the Christmas tree, which is “planted in a flower pot filled with earth, and its branches are covered with presents, chiefly of confectionery, for the younger members of the family.” The article distinguishes between customs in different states however, claiming that in New England generally “Christmas is not much celebrated”, whereas in Pennsylvania and New York it is.

When Edward H. Johnson was vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, a predecessor of Con Edison, he created the first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree at his home in New York City in 1882. Johnson became the “Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights”.

The lyrics sung in the United States to the German tune O Tannenbaum begin “O Christmas tree…”, giving rise to the mistaken idea that the German word Tannenbaum (fir tree) means “Christmas tree”, the German word for which is instead Weihnachtsbaum.

A Soviet-era (1960s) New Year tree decoration depicting a cosmonaut Елочное украшение “Космонавт”. СССР, 1960е годы ХХв

In Russia, the Christmas tree was banned after the October Revolution but then reinstated as a New Year spruce (Новогодняя ёлка, Novogodnyaya yolka) in 1935. It became a fully secular icon of the New Year holiday, for example, the crowning star was regarded not as a symbol of Bethlehem Star, but as the Red star. Decorations, such as figurines of airplanes, bicycles, space rockets, cosmonauts, and characters of Russian fairy tales, were produced. This tradition persists after the fall of the USSR, with the New Year holiday outweighing the Christmas (January 7) for a wide majority of Russian people.

The TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas which debuted on December 9, 1965, was influential on the pop culture surrounding the Christmas tree. Aluminum Christmas trees were popular during the early 1960s in the U.S. They were satirized in the Charlie Brown show and came to be seen as symbolizing the commercialization of Christmas. The term Charlie Brown Christmas tree, describing any poor-looking or malformed little tree, also derives from the 1965 TV special, based on the appearance of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, no doubt inspiring my father in his annual purchases.

Since the early 20th century, it has become common in many cities, towns, and department stores to put up public Christmas trees outdoors, such as the Macy’s Great Tree in Atlanta (since 1948), the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City, and the large Christmas tree at Victoria Square in Adelaide. The use of fire retardant allows many indoor public areas to place real trees and be compliant with code. Licensed applicants of fire retardant solution spray the tree, tag the tree, and provide a certificate for inspection. Real trees are popular with high end visual merchandising displays around the world. Leading global retailers such as Apple often place real trees in their window displays. In 2009, Apple placed two Fraser fir trees in every one of its retail establishments.

Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, New York, NY. Photo taken on December 3, 2006.
2018 U.S. National Christmas Tree during the tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., in the United States on November 28, 2018. President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump can be see to the right.

The United States’ National Christmas Tree has been lit each year since 1923 on the South Lawn of the White House. Today, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree is part of what has become a major holiday event at the White House. President Jimmy Carter lit only the crowning star atop the tree in 1979 in honor of the Americans being held hostage in Iran. The same was true in 1980, except that the tree was fully lit for 417 seconds, one second for each day the hostages had been in captivity.

During most of the 1970s and 1980s, the largest decorated Christmas tree in the world was put up every year on the property of the National Enquirer in Lantana, Florida. This tradition grew into one of the most spectacular and celebrated events in the history of southern Florida, but was discontinued on the death of the paper’s founder in the late 1980s.

In some cities, a charity event called the Festival of Trees is organized, in which multiple trees are decorated and displayed.

The giving of Christmas trees has also often been associated with the end of hostilities. After the signing of the Armistice in 1918 the city of Manchester sent a tree, and £500 to buy chocolate and cakes, for the children of the much-bombarded town of Lille in northern France. In some cases the trees represent special commemorative gifts, such as in Trafalgar Square in London, where the City of Oslo, Norway presents a tree to the people of London as a token of appreciation for the British support of Norwegian resistance during the Second World War; in Boston, where the tree is a gift from the province of Nova Scotia, in thanks for rapid deployment of supplies and rescuers to the 1917 ammunition ship explosion that leveled the city of Halifax; and in Newcastle upon Tyne, where the main civic Christmas tree is an annual gift from the city of Bergen, in thanks for the part played by soldiers from Newcastle in liberating Bergen from Nazi occupation. Norway also annually gifts a Christmas tree to Washington, D.C. as a symbol of friendship between Norway and the U.S. and as an expression of gratitude from Norway for the help received from the U.S. during World War II.

The Christmas Tree oil on canvas by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911.
Trees on sale at a Christmas market in Am Hof, Vienna, Austria. Watercolor on paper painting by Carl Wenzel Zajicek, 1908.

Both setting up and taking down a Christmas tree are associated with specific dates. Traditionally, Christmas trees were not brought in and decorated until Christmas Eve on December 24 or, in the traditions celebrating Christmas Eve rather than the first day of Christmas, December 23, and then removed the day after Twelfth Night (January 5); to have a tree up before or after these dates was even considered bad luck, and that to avoid bad luck from affecting the house’s residents, the tree must be left up until after the following Twelfth Night passes.

In many areas, it has become customary to set up one’s Christmas tree at the beginning of the Advent season. Some families in the U.S. and Canada will put up a Christmas tree a week prior to American Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday of November), and Christmas decorations can show up even earlier in retail stores, often the day after Halloween (October 31). In Canada, many families wait until after Remembrance Day, as to show respect to fallen soldiers. Some households do not put up the tree until the second week of December, and leave it up until January 6 (Epiphany). In Germany, traditionally the tree is put up on December 24 and taken down on January 7, though many start one or two weeks earlier, and in Roman Catholic homes the tree may be kept until February 2 (Candlemas).

In Italy, Ireland and Argentina, along with many countries in Latin America, the Christmas tree is put up on December 8 (Immaculate Conception day) and left up until January 6. In Australia, the Christmas tree is usually put up on December 1, which occurs about two weeks before the school summer holidays (except for South Australia, where most people put up their tree in November following the completion of the Adelaide Christmas Pageant, a time frame that has started to filter into other states as the official time Christmas decorations and in store Santa Claus start to appear). Some traditions suggest that Christmas trees may be kept up until no later than February 2, the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Candlemas), when the Christmas season effectively closes. Superstitions say that it is a bad sign if Christmas greenery is not removed by Candlemas Eve.

Candle on a German Christmas tree. Photo taken on December 24, 2008.
Christmas ornaments at the Christmas market, Strasbourg, France. Photo taken on December 2, 2010.

Christmas ornaments today are usually made of glass, metal, wood, or ceramics. The first decorated trees were adorned with apples, white candy canes and pastries in the shapes of stars, hearts and flowers. Glass baubles were first made in Lauscha, Germany, and also garlands of glass beads and tin figures that could be hung on trees. The popularity of these decorations grew into the production of glass figures made by highly skilled artisans with clay molds.

Tinsel and several types of garland or ribbon are also commonly used to decorate a Christmas tree. Silvered saran-based tinsel was introduced later. Delicate mold-blown and painted colored glass Christmas ornaments were a specialty of the glass factories in the Thuringian Forest, especially in Lauscha in the late 19th century, and have since become a large industry, complete with famous-name designers. Baubles are another common decoration, consisting of small hollow glass or plastic spheres coated with a thin metallic layer to make them reflective, with a further coating of a thin pigmented polymer in order to provide coloration. Lighting with electric lights (Christmas lights or, in the United Kingdom, fairy lights) is commonly done. A tree-topper, sometimes an angel but more frequently a star, completes the decoration.

In the late 1800s, home-made white Christmas trees were made by wrapping strips of cotton batting around leafless branches creating the appearance of a snow-laden tree. In the 1940s and 1950s, popularized by Hollywood films in the late 1930s, flocking was very popular on the West Coast of the United States. There were home flocking kits that could be used with vacuum cleaners. In the 1980s some trees were sprayed with fluffy white flocking to simulate snow.

A small, tabletop aluminum Christmas tree. Photo taken on December 5, 2005.

The first artificial Christmas trees were developed in Germany during the 19th century, though earlier examples exist. These “trees” were made using goose feathers that were dyed green, as one response by Germans to continued deforestation. Feather Christmas trees ranged widely in size, from a small 2-inch (51 mm) tree to a large 98-inch (2,500 mm) tree sold in department stores during the 1920s. Often, the tree branches were tipped with artificial red berries which acted as candle holders.

Over the years, other styles of artificial Christmas trees have evolved and become popular. In 1930, the U.S.-based Addis Brush Company created the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles. Another type of artificial tree is the aluminum Christmas tree, first manufactured in Chicago in 1958, and later in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where the majority of the trees were produced. Most modern artificial Christmas trees are made from plastic recycled from used packaging materials, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Approximately 10% of artificial Christmas trees are using virgin suspension PVC resin; despite being plastic most artificial trees are not recyclable or biodegradable.

Artificial trees became increasingly popular during the late 20th century. Users of artificial Christmas trees assert that they are more convenient, and, because they are reusable, much cheaper than their natural alternative. They are also considered much safer as natural trees can be a significant fire hazard. Between 2001 and 2007 artificial Christmas tree sales in the U.S. jumped from 7.3 million to 17.4 million. Currently it is estimated that around 58% of Christmas trees used in the United States are artificial while numbers in the United Kingdom are indicated to be around 66%.

Other trends have developed in the early 2000s as well. Optical fiber Christmas trees come in two major varieties; one resembles a traditional Christmas tree. One Dallas-based company offers “holographic mylar” trees in many hues. Tree-shaped objects made from such materials as cardboard, glass, ceramic or other materials can be found in use as tabletop decorations. Upside-down artificial Christmas trees became popular for a short time and were originally introduced as a marketing gimmick; they allowed consumers to get closer to ornaments for sale in retail stores and opened up floor space for more products.

Christmas tree in Vatican City. Photo taken on December 25, 2007.

Pope John Paul II introduced the Christmas tree custom to the Vatican in 1982. Although at first disapproved of by some as out of place at the center of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican Christmas Tree has become an integral part of the Vatican Christmas celebrations, and in 2005 Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it as part of the normal Christmas decorations in Catholic homes. In 2004, Pope John Paul called the Christmas tree a symbol of Christ. This very ancient custom, he said, exalts the value of life, as in winter what is evergreen becomes a sign of undying life, and it reminds Christians of the “tree of life” of Genesis 2:9, an image of Christ, the supreme gift of God to humanity. In the previous year he said:

Beside the crib, the Christmas tree, with its twinkling lights, reminds us that with the birth of Jesus the tree of life has blossomed anew in the desert of humanity. The crib and the tree: precious symbols, which hand down in time the true meaning of Christmas.

Weihnachtsaltar und Krippe in der Sanoker Franziskanerkirche. Photo taken on December 25, 2013.

The Catholic Church’s official Book of Blessings has a service for the blessing of the Christmas tree in a home. Likewise the Protestant Episcopal Church in The Anglican Family Prayer Book, which has the imprimatur of The Rt. Rev. Catherine S. Roskam of the Anglican Communion, has long had a ritual titled Blessing of a Christmas Tree, as well as Blessing of a Crèche, for use in the church and the home.

In 2005, the city of Boston renamed the spruce tree used to decorate the Boston Common a “Holiday Tree” rather than a “Christmas Tree”. The name change drew a poor response from the public and it was reversed after the city was threatened with several lawsuits.

Despite having a fairly large number of Christmas stamps in my collection, I have very few that portray a Christmas tree as the central part of the design. The Isle of Man’s 2006 holiday set included six stamps with regular gum (Scott #1172-1177) with two designs repeated in self-adhesive booklets (Scott #1178-1179), all portraying Christmas trees. I only have one of the set — the 28-pence denomination (Scott #1172). These were printed using offset lithography and foil stamping, perforated 14½ with the self-adhesive stamps having die-cut perforations of 9 x 9½ and issued in booklet panes of 10. The first day of issue was October 11, 2006. The 31-pence and 44-pence values (Scott #1173 and 1175) constituted the Isle of Man’s EUROPA issue for that year. The denominations and colors were 28 pence red (Scott #1172 and #1178 self-adhesive), 31 pence dark violet (Scott #1173 issued in miniature sheets of 10 and #1179 self-adhesive), 41 pence green (Scott #1174), 44 pence light blue (Scott #1175 issued in miniature sheets of 10), 72 pence purple (Scott #1176), and 94 pence orange (Scott #1177).

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