In the past, evergreen shrubs and trees held special meaning for people during the depths of the northern winter. Pine, spruce and yew were used to brighten dwellings around the time of the winter solstice. Some people believed an evergreen sprig above the door would ward off evil spirits.
The first Christmas tree lit with candles is thought to have been the creation of religious reformer Martin Luther. It’s said he was inspired by the vision of stars twinkling among the evergreens on a winter’s night. Erected in Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539, his tree must have been a spectacular sight.
When Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz moved to Britain to marry King George III in 1761, she took with her the German custom of adorning Christmas trees with wax tapers, coloured papers, fruit, trinkets and gifts. Thereafter, this ritual became popular with members of the British court and nobility.
It was not until the middle of the 19th century, however, that the practice became more widespread. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, was particularly instrumental in popularising Christmas trees. He used glass ornaments, coloured beads and paper baskets with sugared almonds for decoration. In 1848, an engraving of the Royal Family celebrating Christmas at Windsor beneath their dressed tree sparked extensive interest.
Australian colonists uphold the northern tradition
Christmas was generally a frugal affair in the early years of the Australian penal colony, but by the 1850s free-settlers from Britain were spreading the Royal Family’s new Christmas customs. Without the Christmas tree, however, they were forced to make the most of native flora; branches of eucalypt, pink-coloured Christmas Bushes, scarlet Christmas Bells and even ferns were employed to decorate the house, roof, or veranda.
Like these summer varieties in the east, the Western Australian Christmas Tree, the world’s largest mistletoe, bursts into an amazing display of golden flowers perfectly timed for Christmas!
In due course, the use of Christmas Bushes had to compete with introduced trees and the mid-20th century development of the artificial tree. Today, whether it’s the pack-away variety or a fresh-cut pine, dressing the Christmas tree in mesmerising displays of tinsel, baubles and glittering lights is a favourite Christmas ritual for Australians in whom the seasonal spirit is deep-rooted.