The most popular symbol for the holidays is the Christmas tree. Traditionally, most German families put up a Christmas tree in their homes, and those sticking to real old traditions don’t even put it up before the morning of Christmas Eve and keep it until Three Kings Day, Jan. 6. Some people also decorate the trees in their yards, mainly with light bulbs.
Throughout the years, Christmas trees found their way into stores, official buildings and restaurants. They are decoration items in Christmas markets and in dominant places in towns and cities.
The roots of the Christmas tree date back to Pagan times. Green branches were used to conjure summer while celebrating winter solstice. Imitations of this tradition were kept throughout centuries.
The first decorated Christmas tree was documented in notes from a 1597 meeting in the town of Tuerckheim in the Alsace region of France. These documents list the different guilds’ expenses for tree decorations, and they also state that in order to protect the local forests, each citizen was allowed to only cut one tree. The same documents mention the type of decorations at that time — gingerbread, apples, sugar candy and paper flowers.
It is not documented whether the Christmas tree originated in the Alsace. Several towns in the Black Forest also claim to be the place of origin for the Christmas tree. So either from the Alsace or the Black Forest, the Christmas tree moved to the Pfalz region.
The first tree decorated with lights showed up in the former Palatinate metropolis of Heidelberg. In letters from 1708, electoral princess Lieselotte von der Pfalz mentioned a common box tree with candles on every branch. She also talked about tables, which were set up like altars with presents for the children, including clothes, dolls, candy and more.
Until the turn of the century, the so-called “sugar tree,” made of a pole stuck with wire branches and wrapped with green paper, served as a Christmas tree. This tree was mostly decorated with candy and cookies.
Until the middle of the 19th century, only Protestants accepted the custom of putting up a Christmas tree. The most important Christmas symbol in Catholic regions was the nativity scene. Both customs had not been mingled and Catholics and Protestants stayed in their own regions. Finally, after Napoleon’s wars and the Vienna Congress, the Prussians moved into Catholic areas. From then on for both religions, the Christmas tree was a symbol of German culture.
Emigrating Germans spread the custom of the Christmas tree all over the world — to Russia, Brazil — and Mennonites and Amish people took it to their new homes in Pennsylvania in 1748. In front of the white House in Washington the first Christmas tree was put up in 1891.