Christmas trees; historical, cultural and political geography all rolled into one

by Lisa Mol

Advent is here! The tree is up, presents are wrapped (well, almost, let’s say it’s work in progress) and the cheery Christmas music is all-round. Not to mention the excitement of opening the first little door on the advent calendar this morning!

Many of these traditions are the result of migration and cultural interaction. Take the Christmas tree for example. It is a generally accepted ‘fact’ that Queen Victoria introduced the Christmas tree here after seeing them in Germany during a visit to the future in-laws. However, historically Christmas trees can be traced back to Livonia (present day Estonia and Latvia) where in the 15th and 16th century the rather ominous sounding ‘Brotherhood of the Blackbeard’ erected a tree Christmas season and took it over to the Town Hall on Christmas Eve where they danced around it and set it on fire. We evidently kept the tree part although the setting on fire is mostly accidental nowadays.

By the early 18th century the custom had spread through large areas of northern Germany, but would never quite have made it to southern Germany as it was deemed to Protestant for a Catholic area. Calvin particularly took a liking to it as he saw it as a rather fine replacement for the nativity scene. So if it hadn’t been for the Prussian officials who were moved to southern Germany in the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the custom would have been confined to the northern areas. The Congress of Vienna took place in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and saw large scale reconfiguration of geographical borders in Europe. In the meantime, colonial expansion meant that a multitude of European armies were fighting along the American/Canadian border. The Brunswick soldiers who were stationed at Sorel celebrated Christmas Eve by erecting, yes you guessed it, a Christmas tree, thus introducing the custom in North America. It then was quickly spread through a multitude of states by the German settlers over the next century or so. And good thing that they did because if the Puritan settlers had their way Christmas would have continued to be banned, as it had been by Cromwell, and we would not have the questionable enjoyment of watching Hollywood Christmas versions such as ‘Home Alone’ and ‘The Santa Claus’.

On the other side of the world, the 1890s Gold Rush and the subsequent post WWI and WWII migration streams to Australia did not only significantly expand the European population there, it also introduced the Christmas tree in this far corner of the southern hemisphere.

Queen Victoria should be duly credited here as well, if it hadn’t been for her zealous quest to become genetically related to most of the royal houses of Europe, the Christmas tree may have been severely delayed in its migration towards southern Europe. As it seems the spread of the Christmas tree is largely the result of migration related to European colonialism and our inability to stick to geographical borders for more than a century or so.

Looking at a more contemporary time scale, geography is still very much a part of people’s perception of Christmas. After all, we want to be ‘home’ for Christmas, and large groups of people travel significant distances to be in a certain geographical location at this particular time. So is Christmas as we know it a historical, political and cultural geography phenomenon? I do believe so. Can’t wait for tomorrow morning, when I can open door number 2 of my advent calendar and look at the pretty lights of my Latvian/Protestant/German/Prussian/English Christmas tree.

McGreevy, P (1990) Place in the American Christmas. Geographical Review 80 (1) 32 – 42

Wokeck, M.S. (1999) Trade in strangers: Beginnings of mass migration to North America. Pennsylvania State University Press

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