The History of Christmas Trees (Part 1)
Evergreen trees (and other evergreen plants) have traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of evergreen trees to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to come. The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. However, they were quite different to what we think of as Christmas Trees now.
Nobody is really sure when Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees. It probably began about 1000 years ago in Northern Europe.
Christmas Trees might well have started out as 'Paradise Trees' (branches or wooden frames decorated with apples). These were used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches during Advent and on Christmas Eve. In early church calendars of saints, 24th December was Adam and Eve's day. The Paradise Tree represented the Garden of Eden. It was often paraded around the town before the play started, as a way of advertising the play. The plays told Bible stories to people who could not read.
Christmas Trees as they came to be now started around the late 1400s into the 1500s. In what's now Germany (was the Holy Roman Empire then), the Paradise Tree had more decorations on it (sometimes communion wafers, cherries and later pastry decorations of stars, bells, angels, etc. were added) and it even got a new nickname the 'Christbaum' or 'Christ Tree'.
Some early Christmas Trees, across many parts of northern Europe, were cherry or hawthorn plants (or a branch of the plant) that were put into pots and brought inside so they would hopefully flower at Christmas time. If you couldn't afford a real plant, people made pyramids of woods and they were decorated to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles. It's possible that the wooden pyramid trees were meant to be like Paradise Trees. Sometimes they were carried around from house to house, rather than being displayed in a home.
Some trees (or at least small tops of them or branches of fir trees) were hung from the ceiling, mainly in some parts of Germany, some Slavic countries and parts of Poland. This might have been to save space or they just looked nice hanging from the rafters! (If you have lighting hooks on the ceiling, they would also be an obvious place to hang things from.)
The first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is argued between the cities of Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia! Both claim that they had the first trees; Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510. Both trees were put up by the 'Brotherhood of Blackheads' which was an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners in Livonia (what is now Estonia and Latvia).
Little is known about either tree apart from that they were put in the town square, were danced around by the Brotherhood of Blackheads and were then set on fire. This is like the custom of the Yule Log. The word used for the 'tree' could also mean a mast or pole, tree might have been like a 'Paradise Tree' or a tree-shaped wooden candelabra rather than a 'real' tree.
In the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, there is a plaque which is engraved with "The First New Year's Tree in Riga in 1510", in eight languages.
A picture from Germany in 1521 which shows a tree being paraded through the streets with a man riding a horse behind it. The man is dressed a bishop, possibly representing St. Nicholas.
In 1584, the historian Balthasar Russow wrote about a tradition, in Riga, of a decorated fir tree in 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”. There's a record of a small tree in Breman, Germany from 1570. It is described as a tree decorated with "apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers". It was displayed in a 'guild-house' (the meeting place for a society of business men in the city). (Source)
To be continued ................