One of my favourite Christmas traditions is picking out a real Christmas tree and and decorating it. While researching the Wisley Library treasure sharing session on conifers, I discovered that the tradition of decorating a tree is much older than I thought.
One legend has the Christmas tree tradition dating back to 725 when an English monk, from the early church in France and Germany, named St Boniface discovered a group circling round an oak tree about to sacrifice a child. Felling the tree to save the child, Boniface discovered a tiny fir tree growing in the roots. The fir pointed towards the heavens and Boniface declared that it must be named the “Tree of the Christ Child”.
Decorating the tree
Another legend says that 16th century Christian reformer Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating Christmas trees after using candles on a tree to represent stars twinkling in the clear night skies of winter. A French legend tells of a virtuous poor woman at Christmas falling asleep under a tree. Whilst she slept spiders wove webs over the tree which turned to silver to reward her for her goodness.
For Pagans the Christmas tree was a fertility symbol predating Christianity. Trees were decorated as part of their festivals. When Christians realised that they could not ignore the practice they transformed the symbolism behind the decoration. By the 15th century trees were decorated with apples, the symbol of Adam and Eve, on their feast day of 24 December. These trees became known as the ‘Paradise trees’ as they became central to Paradise plays. In Switzerland and Germany paradise trees were small decorated yews inside homes in celebration of Christ’s birth which later became the Christmas tree. These decorated yews were first described by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798.
Arrival in Britain
In Britain we have Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, to thank for bringing the Christmas tree tradition over from Germany in the early 19th century. In 1841 at Windsor Castle Prince Albert hung a Norway spruce (Picea abies) with lights. The practice became fashionable and wealthy families began adopting the tradition which eventually spread to all once goods became more affordable.
In Victorian times trees were decorated with sweets, paper flowers and gilded nuts. The ritual of taking down the tree on twelfth night was just as important as the hanging of the tree because the edible decorations were shared out amongst children.
In Russia by the 20th century the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree known as Yelka had moved to being a celebration at New Year.
Read our RHS Advice on Christmas trees
More about RHS Libraries
Conifers are the theme of our Wisley Library treasure sharing session on 6 December, 2-4pm. Join us to discover more about what makes conifers special.
Exhibitions and events
The libraries hold exhibitions of photography, botanical art and more, along with talks and courses.
As well as books and periodicals, discover, art, photos and archives. Open to all.
Our libraries can help with your academic research and provide access to digital resources too. RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries - visit our online catalogue.