Christmas trees

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family around a Christmas treeThey might be the focal point of the modern festive season, but Christmas trees are actually older than Christmas itself.

The earliest Christmas trees

The use of trees during winter celebrations dates back thousands of years. For pagans, evergreen trees symbolised life in the darkest days of the year. They were also thought to ward off evil spirits.

The custom was widespread throughout Europe. Norsemen brought Yule trees inside to celebrate their god Jul. Meanwhile the Romans decorated temples with firs during the winter festival of Saturnalia.

The first records of decorated Christmas trees come from Tallinn (Estonia) and Riga (Latvia). These were put up in the town square in the 15th and 16th centuries by groups of merchants. They’d then dance around the tree before setting it on fire.

Victorian Christmas trees

Christmas trees soon became common in Germany. They were then introduced to Britain as early as 1790 by Queen Charlotte, the German wife of King George III.

However, they didn’t become popular in Britain until the reign of Queen Victoria. Christmas trees reminded Prince Albert of his childhood in Germany and he installed one in Windsor Castle in 1841. In 1848, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the Royal Family around a tree decorated with candles, baubles and gifts. From there the custom caught on. The picture was also published in the US, spreading the tradition across the Atlantic.  

Now the UK gets through around 8 million real Christmas trees a year. The most famous in the country is in Trafalgar Square. Since 1947 it’s been donated every year by the people of Norway as a thank you for Britain’s support during the Second World War.