Christmas wasn't always celebrated the way it is today. Most UK Christmas traditions became popular during the Victorian period, but still had much earlier roots.
The Christmas tree actually predates Christianity by
centuries! Ancient Romans decorated trees with small pieces of metal
during Saturnalia, their winter festival in honor of Saturnus, the god of
agriculture. There is much evidence to suggest that December 25th was chosen as
the day to celebrate Christ's birth in order to take over the holiday from the
pagans. (Most historians place the birth of Christ as in the spring or summer;
shepherds don't watch over their flocks in the fields in the dead of winter!
Historians believe the Emporer Constantine did this around the year 390 to
combine Christmas with the Saturn and Mithras celebrations and also with the
cult of Sol Invictus, a form of Sunday worship that had come to Rome from Syria a
During the middle ages, an evergreen was decorated with apples and called the Paradise tree, as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve and was held on December 24th each year.
The modern Christmas trees appeared in the middle 1500's. The trees were sold at local markets and set up in homes without any ornaments in the Strassbourg area of Alsace in 1531, which was then a part of Germany.
The oldest record of a decorated Christmas tree came from a 1605 diary found in Strasburg. The tree was decorated with paper roses, apples and candies.
In Austria & Germany during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tops of evergreens were cut and hung upside down in a living room corner. They were decorated with apples, nuts and strips of red paper.
Tinsel was invented in Germany around 1610. Real silver was used at that time, and special machines were invented to pull the silver out into wafer thin strips for tinsel. Silver was durable, but tarnished quickly, especially with candlelight which was used at that time. Attempts were made to use a mixture of lead and tin, but this was heavy and tended to break under its own weight so was not so practical. So silver was used for tinsel right up to the mid-20th century when plastics took its place.
Decorations were still of a 'home-made' variety. Young Ladies spent hours at Christmas Crafts, quilling snowflakes and stars, sewing little pouches for secret gifts and paper baskets with sugared almonds in them. Small bead decorations, fine drawn out silver tinsel came from Germany together with beautiful Angels to sit at the top of the tree. Candles were often placed into wooden hoops for safety.
Somewhere around 1846 - 48, Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was credited with bringing the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal Family. Some historians state that in actuality Queen Charlotte, Victoria's grandmother, recalled that a Christmas tree was in the Queen's lodge at Windsor on Christmas Day in 1800. It is certain that in the Illustrated London News in 1846, an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince, Albert and their children around a Christmas tree appeared. Unlike the previous Royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court immediately became fashionable - not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1842.
The decorations were tinsels, silver wire ornaments, candles and small beads. All these had been manufactured in Germany and East Europe since the 17th century. The custom was to have several small trees on tables, one for each member of the family, with that persons gifts stacked on the table under the tree.
In America, until this time, Christmas trees were considered a quaint foreign custom. America was so geographically large, that it tended to have 'pockets' of customs relating to the immigrants who had settled in a particular area. It was not until the telegraph communications really got going in the 19th century, that such customs began to spread. Thus references to decorated trees in America before about the middle of the 19th century are very rare. But by 1850, the Christmas tree had become fashionable in the eastern states.
Meanwhile, in Germany, companies, like Lauscha, began to produce fancy shaped glass bead garlands for the trees, and short garlands made from necklace 'bugles' and beads. These were readily available in Germany but not produced in sufficient quantities to export to Britain or America. The Rauschgoldengel was a common sight. Literally, 'Tingled-angel', bought from the Thuringian Christmas markets, and dressed in pure gilded tin.
Mark Carr brought trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York in 1851, and opened the first retail Christmas tree lot in the United States. Franklin Pierce was the first president to introduce the Christmas tree to the White House in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children.
By the 1870's, Glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Lauscha, in Thuringia (Germany). It became a status symbol to have glass ornaments on the tree, the more one had, the better ones status! Still many home-made things were seen. The British Empire was growing, and the most popular tree topper was the Union Jack (the nation's flag). Sometimes there were flags of the Empire and flags of the allied countries. Trees became very patriotic.
The glass ornaments started being imported into America around 1880, where they were sold through stores such as FW Woolworth. They were quickly followed by American patents for electric lights (1882), (until this time candles were attached to tree branches - which resulted in a lot of fires!) and metal hooks for safer hanging of decorations onto the trees (1892). You can still find candle clips and tree candles in German department stores. The artificial Christmas tree was invented in the 1880's in Germany, to combat some of the damage being done by so many native Fir trees being chopped for Christmas.
The main meal in England on Christmas day was goose (if they were wealthy), ham or roast beef. Turkey is a relatively recent addition, as turkeys are native to America and don't do well in the English climate. Christmas pudding, Figgy pudding and plum pudding are English fruitcakes, saturated in brandy, that date back to the Middle Ages. Suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts, and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are "plum," meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. Brandy is poured over it daily for weeks until it is well pickled! It is then unwrapped, sliced, and topped with cream or custard. You can feel your arteries hardening just looking at it; but it still tastes better than a fruitcake. For some reason those Claxton fruitcakes caught on around the beginning of the 1900's in America. (Personally, I think people are still passing around the same ones manufacture red at the turn of the 1900 century, as no one I know would want to eat one!)
The Christmas tree popularity died down somewhat in the UK after the death of Queen Victoria. but in the 1930's (in Britain) there was a revival of Dickensian nostalgia, particularly in Britain. Christmas cards all sported Crinoline ladies with muffs and bonnets popular in the 1840's. Christmas Trees became large, and real again, and were decorated with many bells, balls and tinsels, and with a beautiful golden haired angel at the top.
But wartime England put a stop to many of these trees. It was forbidden to cut trees down for decoration, and with so many raids, many people preferred to keep their most precious heirloom Christmas tree decorations carefully stored away in metal boxes, and decorated only a small tabletop tree with home-made decorations, which could be taken down into the shelters for a little Christmas cheer, when the air-raid sirens went.
The first national American Christmas Tree was lighted in the year 1923 on the White House lawn by President Calvin Coolidge. A tree from the National Christmas Tree Association has been displayed in the Blue Room of the White House since 1966. See Christmas Trees at the White House.
After World War II, the Christmas tree again became popular!
The mid-1960's saw another change. Sammy Davis Jr, and the Mod 60's were booming, and plastic was everywhere. Silver aluminum trees became popular. The 'Silver Pine' tree, patented in the 1950's, was designed to have a revolving light source under it, with coloured gelatine 'windows, which allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree. No decorations were needed for this tree. Very "hip"!
Other websites: Christmas in New York City