Evergreens and Christmas trees
The Christmas tree is a prominent fixture of our modern celebrations, but how did such trees come to play a part in our festive celebrations?
A tree is for life, not just for Christmas
It’s probably not a great surprise that people were in awe of plants that look green and healthy over the dark winter months. This lush, verdant growth, often accompanied by flowers and fruit, must have seemed magical.
Bringing green plants indoors over the winter not only helped people to perhaps hold onto memories of the warmer, easier and more productive summer months but many plants had magical and superstitious associations. Often we find similar folklore stories across Europe and the same plants appear in a variety of religious winter festivals across the ages.
In Britain, the Christian Church adopted many of the traditions and the plants from previous winter festivals of the Romans, Celts and Druids.
Now for the science
Evergreen leaves are often smaller, tougher and glossier than their deciduous counterparts. Think about how thick and shiny a holly leaf is or the reduced, slim, surface area of a pine needle.
This is all to minimise water loss when frozen winter soil reduces the water available to plants. Water is lost from leaves through small holes, mainly on the underside of leaves, almost like sweat pores.
Evergreen leaves have fewer than deciduous leaves. For example, a holly leaf may have 63,000 stomata per square inch on the underside of the leaf compared to 160,000 per square inch on the underside of a deciduous plant such as lilac.
The Christmas tree
One of our best known Christmas plants, the Christmas tree, is a relatively late introduction to the Christmas story.
References to a Christmas tree as such do not appear in the early sources which mention other winter festival plants. However, illuminating trees was part of an early Germanic Yuletide tradition which began on the first full moon after the winter solstice, 21 December. Evergreen branches were hung inside and candles lit to ward off evil spirits.
The changes to our calendar during early Christianity named the start of Yuletide as December 25th. It’s not hard to imagine that over time the winter decorations of evergreen branches and candles combined to produce a decorated, lit tree.
Early Christmas tree decorations were very practical, food, drink, warm clothes and money, which children were encouraged to shake free. A 1601 watercolour shows St. Christopher holding Jesus next to a tree decorated with food and drink.
Christmas trees came to Britain in the first half of the 19th century, probably via a number of German associations, Hessian Soldiers serving in George III's army, German merchants and also, significantly, German members of the Royal Household. In 1800 Queen Charlotte, wife of George III was said to have celebrated Christmas in a German fashion. Queen Caroline, wife of George IV also had a Christmas tree in 1821.
But it was Queen Victoria’s first Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841 that captured the imagination of the press of the time. However, not all were impressed. Charles Dickens described it as a new German toy. For quite a while it was only seen in the wealthier households however today there’s a Christmas tree on many high streets and it’s the plant that most of us associate with Christmas.
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