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.
- Tradition reaching Paris
- Legend of the fir tree
- French Christmas trees
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
It was in the town of Sélestat (between Colmar and Strasbourg) that the first Alsatian Christmas tree appeared. Or, at least, it is in Sélestat that, on the 21st December 1521, a Christmas tree was mentioned for the first time in history. Stored in 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 decorate their Christmas tree. 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.
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.
Various sources say that half the Christmas trees sold in France originate from Burgundy. Two different species are available: spruce (which has a nice perfume but loses its needles within two weeks) and the more robust Nordmann fir.
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 radiata).
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.
In the 15th century, a very ancient decoration called ‘lametta’ was made by craftsmen in Lyon. Its metal fringes evoked angels’ hair, illuminating the fir tree with their silver or gold, inspired by the gallons worn by military men. They are called “cheveux d’ange” in French.
Originating in Germany in around 1610, tinsel used to be made of real silver. But as silver tarnishes over time, artificial tinsel – as we know them – later appeared. In Alsace, it is quite fashionable to decorate Christmas trees with pearl tinsel.
According to tradition, 12 candles must be lit on each Christmas tree, one representing each month of the year. In Germany, between the 17th and 19th centuries, trees were illuminated by candles but the wax was too expensive, thus other techniques to create this lighting effect were found. Sometimes flexible candles were knotted around the branches or nut shells were filled with oil. Since then, the system has evolved somewhat and iron wire or clips are used to attach decorations to trees. In order to limit the risk of fires, candles almost entirely been replaced by fake electrical ones.
The top of a Christmas tree: Christmas treetoppers
Nowadays, in addition to the usual baubles and tinsel, we traditionally place a golden star on the top of the tree, symbolising the Bethlehem star. The star also represents the one which the three wise men followed to find the baby Jesus; the star is also a symbol of light. Alternatively, French Christmas trees can sometimes be topped with a “cimier oriental” (finial) or an angel.
At the top of a Christmas tree can be found:
- a Christmas Star - a Cimier oriental (finial) - a Christmas angel
Advice for a successfully decorated tree
The position of a Christmas tree in a room needs to be carefully considered. It needs to stand in a stable place, where it won’t be brushed against by passing people. It is essential to ensure it is not placed too close to a source of heat and to be extra careful if you intend to use real candles to decorate it.
When decorating your Christmas tree:
The lights should be arranged on the branches near the base of the tree. Weave strings of lights along the branches towards the inside of the tree then move back to the outer edges of the branches and upwards.
Try to avoid hanging your ornaments right on the tips of the branches as they may fall, due to their weight. Placing ornaments and other decorations ‘inside’ your tree (that is, towards the inside of the branches) add depth and make it ravishing.
Place your ornaments without too much order and symmetry, and arrange them evenly around the tree, varying their shapes and colours. The larger ornaments should be placed towards the bottom, the smaller towards the top.
A tasteful tree is generally not multi-coloured. Limit your main decoration colours to just two or three: it could be a mix of gold, green and red (the traditional colours of Christmas), pink and gold or blue and silver, for example.
If you believe tinsel adds an unnecessary weight or thickness to your tree, you can always adopt the Alsatian/German tradition and replace it with “Cheveux d’Ange”.
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)