If you’ve just returned from a tree lot and plan to pull out boxes of decorations this afternoon, you may find it hard to imagine that Christmas trees took well into the 19th century to be widely accepted in the United States.
“In a sense,” writes scholar Bernd Brunner in his compact cultural history of the holiday icon, “the Americanization of the ‘German’ Christmas tree runs parallel to the Americanization of German immigrants.”
Brunner unpacks the history of the Christmas tree as calmly and carefully as someone might unwrap keepsake ornaments. While there are many conjectures about the origin of Christmas trees, the first tree Brunner can document was in the Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539. Summing up the roots of this holiday icon, he quotes German historian Alexander Demandt: “The meaning is Christian, the origins are ancient and the form of the Christmas celebration is Germanic.”
The book’s many period illustrations include a 19th-century engraving of Martin Luther and his family sitting by a Christmas tree, proof of the power of images to make myth. Luther died in 1546; the first confirmed Christmas tree in his hometown, Wittenberg, didn’t appear until the 18th century, and family celebrations around a tree didn’t become common until the end of that century. But Luther had encouraged the celebration of Christmas; for a long time, Christmas trees in Germany, sometimes called Lutherbaum, were considered a Protestant thing.
“The attraction of all things green, colorful, and glittering in the cold season is elemental,” Brunner writes. While some people have used deciduous trees, conifers won out because of their year-round greenery. Fir trees, Brunner notes, “have traditionally been credited with extraordinary strength and perseverance.”
While some church leaders initially saw the trees as hedonistic symbols, their embrace by German nobility and bourgeoisie helped transform them into Christian icons. Changes in home architecture that led to sitting rooms and parlors also provided a convenient place for Christmas trees.
Tree decorations have evolved over the centuries, too. Until the 19th century, nuts, sweets, baked goods and other edibles were the chief décor. Christian symbols became increasingly common in the 19th century. Tinsel, he contends, was inspired by the silver- and gold-plated copper wire left over from metal work. Some trees sported Dresdens, three-dimensional paper ornaments named after the city. Glass ornaments grew out of the glassblowing craft of Germany’s central region.
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The tradition of placing an angel or another fancy object on the top of the three also grew in the 19th century, when fewer trees were hung from rafters or joists.
Candles were the first Christmas tree lights. They could be dangerous, and people and houses were burned. Striving for safer illumination, one inventor made a gaslit cast-iron Christmas tree in the 1870s. That didn’t catch on in this universe, but electric lights did.
Brunner even addresses the history of the humble but necessary Christmas tree stand, without dwelling on the fingers that get caught in them. In times of adversity, he said, people were known to cut a rutabaga in half, and drill a hole in it to hold the tree.
In the United States, Brunner reports, “Christmas trees remained exotica for some time, eyed with both interest and skepticism.” Despite Puritanical opposition, the Christmas tree became as important to American celebrations as it is to European ones. From his European vantage point, Brunner noted that a heavy use of lights and a preference for symmetrical trees are the clichés of an American Christmas, the latter being “a preference famously lampooned in the popular television special ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ which encouraged affection for imperfect trees.”
He notes the tradition of a “meticulously chosen” Christmas tree each year in the Blue Room of the White House, singling out Jacqueline Kennedy’s “Nutcracker”-decorated tree. But New York City, Bernd suggests, can fairly be called “the tree’s world capital,” with pride of place going to the tree that graces Rockefeller Center each year.
Brunner spares a few words for artificial trees, both realistic and deliberately not so, and for genetic research into the genotypes of evergreens. “Mysterious and ancient though its roots may be, the Christmas tree remains one of our more visible icons, and it is always being invented anew.”