Even before Christianity spread throughout Europe, evergreen plants were regarded as special and people decorated their homes during winter with pine, spruce and firs. The fact that these plants remained green all year round led to the belief that they had supernatural properties and could ward off evil spirits and disease. Adding ornamentation to trees for Christmas probably began in northern Europe around 1000 years ago. Germany is generally credited with the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree as we know it today, but the first documented Christmas trees were in Estonia and Latvia as far back as the 15th century (though these is some dispute between these two nations as to which has the best claim to the very first example). The custom probably migrated to Germany and other parts of Europe from there.
There is a lovely story (conveniently associated with our home county of Devon), however, about St. Boniface of Credition starting the Christmas tree tradition. He travelled to Germany to converted the pagan people to Christianity and is said to have been shocked by the sight of a young boy about to be sacrificed. He was angry and wanted to prevent the tragic event from proceeding so he chopped down an oak tree. To the amazement of St. Boniface and the pagan onlookers a fir tree immediately sprang from that very spot. St. Boniface then decorated the tree with candles so that he could preach to the people that night.
In Britain the Christmas tree custom became prevalent only after the Royal family were depicted gathered around a decorated tree in the Illustrated London News in 1848. This was not the first Christmas tree enjoyed by the British Royal family, but Queen Victoria was a particularly popular monarch and people adopted the tradition because it was associated with her. At this time Christmas trees were primarily decorated with fruit and nuts and were lit by candles.
Attaching candles to tree branches was a tricky business. People tried tying them on with wire or string, pinning them with needles and sticking them with melted wax. None of these methods was particularly successful and, of course, if you can’t keep the candle upright then you run the risk of setting the tree on fire. Therefore candles were lit only for short periods of time and owners had to be vigilant.
The history of Christmas tree lights took a sudden leap in the 1880s when Edward Johnson, a friend of Thomas Edison, decorated a Christmas tree with electric bulbs for the first time. However, these early lights were expensive and didn’t become affordable for most people until the 1930s.
Early Christmas tree lights were much more interesting than the standard modern LEDs. In the mid-20th century glass shapes in all shapes and sizes would adorn Christmas trees – from multi-coloured pine cones to lurid representation of Chinese paper lanterns, you could even find character-based lights such as Raggedy Ann.. Personally, I have fond memories of my Nan’s Christmas tree covered in icicle lights which must have dated from the 1970s or before.