Christmas Tree Decorations
Nature Bulletin No. 211-A December 18, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
CHRISTMAS TREE DECORATIONS
Christmas trees, decorated or "trimmed", apparently were first used in
this country during the Revolutionary War by Hessian soldiers who,
hired to fight for England, were thinking of the customs in their
German homeland. An account of the festivities here at Fort Dearborn,
in 1804, mentions a spruce Christmas tree. Some say that a Harvard
professor from Germany had one in 1824. There is reliable evidence
that there was such a tree in Cambridge, Mass., in 1832; and in
Philadelphia two years later. The idea and the tradition spread rapidly
through this country.
There are many legends about the origin of the Christmas tree,
including the story that Martin Luther, strolling through the moonlit
countryside one Christmas Eve, about 1535 AD, was so enchanted
with the sparkle of the stars and the moonshine reflected by the
glistening snowflakes on the evergreens that he cut a small tree, took it
home to his family, and put small lighted candles on it to simulate
those reflections. There are also legends in the Norse, French, English
and other folklore. We do know that in Strasbourg, on the Rhine, there
were Christmas trees in 1604, although there is no mention of lights or
decorations. The custom gradually spread over all of Germany, to
Finland in about 1800, thence to the other Scandinavian countries, and
to England and France.
Now, the Christmas tree is common in all Christian countries except
Spain, Italy, and some of Latin America -- where the custom is to erect
a miniature reproduction of the stable and the manger where Christ
was born. Even the Japanese have adopted the Christmas tree,
decorating it with tangerines and delicate rice wafers which enclose
In the United States the decorations at first, if any, consisted mostly of
strings of popcorn or tufts of cotton as symbols of snow on the
branches. Chains of white or colored paper, and strings of cranberries
or of red haws, were also used. Candies, cookies, nuts, and fruit such
as apples and oranges, were hung on the branches; sometimes pictures
or models of hams, bacons, pumpkins and other food-stuffs.
Manufactured strings of tinsel or glass balls, and baubles of glass or
tin, gradually came into use; also striped candy canes and "icicles" of
tinfoil; and, finally, colored electric lights of various shapes and sizes,
to replace the candles responsible for so many fires and deaths. Many
trees are now sprayed with a mist of metallic or plastic paint, or mica
flakes, simulating frost and snow.
In Sweden and Norway, the Christmas tree is decorated with gold and
silver stars, strips of colored paper, and miniature flags, of many
nations, strung in garlands. In Sicily, olive trees decorated with
oranges are sometimes used. Swiss trees, on which are hung gaily
decorated pine cones and gilded nuts, have the snow of the Alps
reproduced in cotton. A French tree may have sugar bon-bons and
exquisite paper ornaments. In Poland, the tree is decorated with
brightly-colored-paper peasants, paper clowns and miniature toys. The
Ukrainian tree, hung with long garlands of bright red cranberries, is
topped by the six-pointed star of the Orthodox Green Church and,
symbolic of the manger in Bethlehem, has a heap of straw at the base.
In Lithuania, straw from the fields is laboriously fashioned into
windmills, bird cages, bells and geometric designs, to be hung upon
the Christmas tree. In Holland, beneath the tree, the children leave
their wooden shoes, filled with hay for St. Nicholas' white horse on
which he jumps from roof to roof.
May all of YOU have a happy merry Christmas.
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Update: June 2012