Legend of the Christmas tree

The resin scent of the Christmas tree and the stinging pine needles during decoration are determinant memories of our childhood. In the 1990s, plastic pines spread and nowadays there are different environmentally friendly creative solutions to replace pine trees with branches and pallets. However, the classical sawn trees or the living pines are the most popular. In our virtual exhibition, we are going to find out why the pine tree became the indispensable accessory of Christmas.

boldog_karacsonyi_unnepeket_593037.jpgErecting a Christmas tree is a Christian tradition, but the respect of evergreens goes back to much earlier times. Even the Celts and Teutons attributed demon and sickness dispelling power to them; the evergreen is a symbol of life. The decorated pine tree as a Christmas tree started its conquest as of the 16th century from the Holy Roman Empire. It spread in the whole world, to overseas as well as in Hungary due to German influence. The Christmas tree cult of Germany is typical: their Christmas hymn O Tannenbaum is also about the ‘green pine’. According to rumours, the father of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther was the first to decorate a pine – but in the distance of several hundred years, we have little chance to find the inventor. In the beginning, the trees were decorated with apples, walnuts, wafers and honey-cakes.

The Christmas tree phenomenon was not received without reservation everywhere. Finally, Queen Victoria canonized it: her family was photographed with a Christmas tree and the press published the photo. As the Queen dictated the actual trends, the decorative feast symbol became fashionable. Slowly it became popular in the U.S. as well, and it made a big career: ceiling-high trees were often seen there. The first Christmas tree in the White House was set up in 1856.

kellemes_karacsonyt_351523.jpgThe candle in the evolution of decorations arrived in the 17th century. Glass ornaments appeared in the following century, and later the well-known globes came, which symbolized the apple of the tree in Paradise – hinting the events in the Bible. Festoons and angel hair replaced the chains, which represented the snake enwinding the tree. The top ornament used to be a star that reminded to the star of Bethlehem, but nowadays the peaked steeple ornaments are more frequent. The lights are also important elements, because they have the role in this transcendent performance. Instead of candles, people light sparklers or plug in light bulbs nowadays. The Hungarian traditional ‘saloon candy’ is a Hungaricum. The original fondant candies were handmade and hand-wrapped, and later Frigyes Stühmer’s chocolate factory started their mass production.

karacsonyfa_unnepseg_40441.jpgIn Hungary, Christmas tree decoration is not an old tradition. It was first popular among the German-speaking middle-class citizens in the 19th century and then the Hungarian aristocracy adopted the custom. Allegedly, Countess Teréz Brunszvik, who founded the first kindergarten in the country, set up the first Hungarian Christmas tree. Duchess Maria Dorothea of Württemberg, third wife of Archduke Josef Palatine of Hungary, and the family Podmaniczky were also among the people who brought this custom into honour in Hungary. Instant Christmas trees became fashionable around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, which meant that pre-decorated trees were available in the stores. People decorate the trees on 24 December in order that little Jesus can put his presents under them on Christmas Eve. There are places where little Jesus brings the Christmas tree as well. On 6 January, the day of Epiphany, ornaments are put back to their boxes and slumber there until the next Christmastime.


Translated by Zita Aknai

Source: Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár, múlt-kor


You can find different decorated Christmas trees in old postcards, retro photos, paintings and drawings in the frame of our virtual gallery.

The Digital Archive Development Department of Forum Hungaricum wishes you a merry Christmas with this selection!


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