Decorated with ornaments, glistening tinsel, blinking fairy lights and topped by a star, the Christmas tree has become an iconic figure of Christmas since its origins in the 16th century. This page will tell you when and where the tradition started and how it became a major part of the holiday festivities.
The significance of the Christmas tree
In France, the Christmas tree first appeared in Alsace in 1521 and is called “sapin de noël” or “arbre de noël”. The tree, covered in red apples and lights, symbolised the venue of Christ: ‘the light that illuminates the world’. A fir tree is the best choice because they do not lose their leaves during winter, which doubles as a symbol of hope and eternal life.
It is a more secular tradition than that of the Nativity and thus more appreciated by protestant countries such as northern Germany and Scandinavia.
The origins of the Christmas tree
The tradition of decorated Christmas trees were a widespread tradition in Southern Germanic lands as early as the 16th century. It was in the town of Sélestat (between Colmar and Strasbourg) that the first official mention of a decorated tree in history appeared. Stored at the Humanist Library (Bibliothèque Humaniste) and dating to 21 December 1521, the records of the city of Sélestat contain a mention of the tree on page 239, in reference to four schillings which were given to the forest rangers to watch over the tree on Christmas Day. The city of Sélestat had to spend this money in order to protect its woods from ruination by the locals who wished to buy their Christmas tree at public markets. The demand for Christmas trees was so high in Alsace that local ordinances stated that “no person shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoe lengths (4 feet)“. Indeed, more than decorating just a branch, the inhabitants of Sélestat adorned the whole tree – which was hung from the ceiling -, thus starting a new custom that would continue throughout the centuries to come across the whole world, from New York’s Rockefeller Centre to St. Martin Place in Sydney.
The tradition of the Christmas tree was also boosted by the Reformation. In the second half of the 16th century, the Reformation leaders refused to use a Nativity scene during Christmas. Instead, they encouraged the development of the Tree tradition, as it does not depict Jesus or any other biblical characters. Martin Luther suggested that the Christmas tree could be a symbol of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
The legend goes that the founder of the Protestant faith was walking through the forest on Christmas Eve when he was awed by the beauty of the starry sky that sparkled between the branches of the evergreen trees. Moved by this spectacular sight, he decided to cut a small tree to take home with him. There, he recreated the beautiful sight by placing candles on the tree’s branches.
The Christmas tree tradition reaching Paris
The Reformation leaders’ support of the Christmas tree tradition explained why it quickly spread throughout the Northern European states, of protestant faith, such as Northern Germany and Scandinavia.
Let’s keep in mind that in the 16th century, Alsace was entirely part of the Germanic world, as were the neighbouring duchies of Lorraine and Austria. The tradition of putting up a decorated fir tree on Christmas Eve was kept alive throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, while in France it never really broke through.
All this would begin to change when Maria Leszczyńska, the Polish wife of King Louis XV, brought the tradition to Versailles, with very little success. Again, in the 1830s, the German daughter-in-law of King Louis-Philippe, Duchess Helen Louise of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, set up a Christmas tree in the Tuileries Palace, although it still did not develop into a strong tradition among the French population. It was not until the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) that the tree started to become popular in France.
This was due to the flock of immigrants fleeing from the regions of Lorraine and Alsace, who were refusing to become Prussian. They brought with them the Germanic tradition of the tree and, by the 1930’s, the tree had become part of the Christmas celebrations in every French household.
Today, every major town in France puts up gigantic Christmas trees in public places, such as near the cathedrals of Paris or Rouen, Place Kléber in Strasbourg or Place Stanislas in Nancy. Here below in Mulhouse:
According to tradition, a Christmas tree should not be put up before Christmas Eve (24 December) and should be taken down twelve days after Christmas, that is, on the Epiphany. However, most French households have their Christmas tree set up by about 15 December and street decorations are usually up from the first Sunday of Advent.
Types of Christmas Trees sold in France
There are three species available: spruce, Nordmann and noble fir trees.
Most people who want to have a real tree at home go to a Christmas Tree stand located at a local supermarket, Christmas market or a specific place designated by the municipality. There, the seller often knows how to properly prune a Christmas tree which can make a huge difference when it is put up at home.
In Australia, people buy and decorate Monterey Pines (Pinus radiate):
The legend of the fir tree
It is said that St. Boniface, a German missionary monk from the end of the 7th century, wanted to convince the druid around Geismar in Germany that the oak was not a sacred tree. In trying to do so, he cut down an oak tree. As it fell, the tree crushed everything in its way except for a young fir tree.
It was at this point that the legend began when St. Boniface proclaimed the fir’s survival as a miracle and declared, ‘From here onwards we shall call this tree the tree of infant Jesus’. Ever since, all across Germany and Alsace, young fir trees are planted to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Christmas tree decorations
The first Alsatian Christmas trees were decorated with red apples (the symbol of temptation) and cookies resembling ‘hosts’ (the symbol of redemption).
The first Christmas trees were decorated with natural and edible products such as apples, candies, dried cakes in the shape of characters, nuts, pine cones, dolls but also ribbons and coloured papers (in the shape of Alsatian flowers) as well as candles. However, the legend tells that in 1858, a great drought in the Northern Vosges meant a poor harvest with no apples or other fruits and the locals were unable to use them as part of their Christmas decorations. A glass blower from the Lorraine village of Goetzenbruck, near Meisenthal, imitated the shape of the fruits, using his glass blowing instruments (website of the Centre International d’Art Verrier in Meisenthal).
Today, there is an extensive range of ornaments that can be found in Christmas markets and department stores. The most expensive ones (and most fragile) are made of glass, while the cheapest are in plastic. Chocolate ornaments wrapped in foil are also extremely popular in France and are hugely enjoyed by children.
Christmas trees in France
Christmas trees are set up in the heart of most French cities from Advent to the New Year, such as in:
– Nancy (Place Stanislas)
– Paris (Place de la Concorde)
– Strasbourg (Place Kléber)
– Mulhouse (Place des Victoires)
Our pages on CHRISTMAS TREES