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Inventing the Christmas Tree

Bernd Brunner

(Yale University Press; US: Nov 2012)

Whether Douglas or Montana fir, evergreen or spruce, real or artificial, green or brightly colored fiberglass, Bernd Brunner says they are the most “enduring symbol” of Christmas, and in his slim volume Inventing the Christmas Tree, he explores the history of the Christmas tree in an attempt to discover “What drove people to go off into the forest, chop down a tree, put it in their house, and decorate it in the first place?”


As Brunner relates, this is not an easy question to answer—in part because it’s not clear when Christmas trees first appeared. Some records point to the early 15th century; one source suggests that King Henry VIII’s court may have housed one of the first Christmas trees. Another theory—Christmas trees originated in Central Asia. However, ultimately, Brunner must conclude “Where the first tree stood is lost to the ages” and moves on to what history can tell us.


And it can tell us some interesting things. One fun historical note: in some sections of the world, people, because of space issues, used to hang Christmas trees from the ceiling, and “Hanging the tree from the ceiling like a chandelier was also thought to protect the household from harm”. 


Of course, what’s a tree without decorations? Brunner details the many different types of ornaments that have decorated trees over the years—from food and real candles to glass bulbs and angels—and illustrates that decorations have a much documented history of their own. Even the placement of decorations has a history. Brunner cites Hugo Elm’s 1878 Golden Christmas Book, which includes “steps” for decorating a Christmas tree. Some advice—place marzipan and sweets between nuts, alternate gold and silver nuts/pinecones, and place glass balls and fruit on the upper branches. And let’s not forget the names of the decorations either; tinsel, in colloquial German, was once known as silver-plated sauerkraut.


The trees in and of themselves are worthy of note but, as with much else, often the most remarkable aspects are the human responses to the trees, and Brunner includes many of these, as well. Poets often found Christmas trees a suitable subject. Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote about the joy of the Christmas tree in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Numerous novelists and journalists wrote about the Christmas tree as well—but not always in such happy fashion. Hans Christian Andersen wrote a tale from the tree’s perspective that shows the tree’s delight at being loved and decorated and its dismay at being discarded (and abused) the day after Christmas. It’s almost enough to make you tear up (or at least, replant your tree after the holidays—providing it still has its roots).

Christmas trees are also popular subjects for artists and illustrators, and images, many in color, adorn the book. From an imagining of Martin Luther and his family with their Christmas tree to vintage postcards to a photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Nutcracker tree, Brunner shows many quintessential trees and describes many others (such as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree or Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree).


Even the beloved Christmas tree is not without controversy, and these controversies go back to the earliest known trees. In the 17th century, Brunner relates that not all churches embraced the Christmas tree and some were worried that it was “receiving greater attention ‘than the word of God and the holy rites’”. In 1901, Thomas Mann described “the spectacle of competitive Christmas tree decoration”, and during this time, well-decorated Christmas trees were often considered “status symbols”. During World War II, the Christmas tree became part of the National Socialist “propaganda machine”. Most recently, the disposal of Christmas trees has been a somewhat contentious issue.


Inventing the Christmas Tree is full of interesting information. The illustrations add an element of nostalgic charm that, particularly with the intense commercialization of the holiday season in the United States. In fact, one of the nicest aspects of this book (even though Brunner discusses some extravagances, such as the 30-foot tree erected in 2010 in Abu Dhabi that was “decorated with pearls, gold, and gems worth $11 million”) is that it manages to escape the Black Friday, let’s celebrate Christmas with a new luxury car sentiment that seems to pervade much of American society (whether one can afford that car or not).


Still, for all the allure of the illustrations and all the trivia that will satisfy the most curious of minds, the book’s tone sometimes seems a little flat or academic.  And in the end, this makes Inventing the Christmas Tree interesting and informative, when it also easily could have been charming and inviting.

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