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The medieval origins of the Christmas tree

A 15-foot Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. Chris Jackson/Getty

Evergreen conifers are “among our oldest tree species”, says Rivka Galchen in The New Yorker. “Picture a serene triceratops crunching on a pine tree and you won’t be too far off.” Exactly when people started decorating them for Christmas isn’t clear. We know that in 1419, in the German city of Freiburg, a tree was set up in a hospital and adorned with “apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel”. In Riga, in 1510, a group of merchants decorated a tree with thread and straw, then burned it at Lent. But the term “Christmas tree” wasn’t written down until 1611, in a ban on felling trees in the Alsatian town of Turckheim.

Not all Christians are into it. “The tradition was for centuries avoided or disdained by Catholics,” with the Vatican only putting up a tree for the first time in 1982. Puritan settlers in New England “viewed the trees with suspicion”; in 1659, the government of Massachusetts Bay threatened five-shilling fines for “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like”. Others allowed themselves to have more fun. In 1823, the Society of Bachelors in York, Pennsylvania advertised that its tree would be “superb, superfine, superfrostical, shnockagastical, double refined, mill’twill’d made of Dog’s Wool, Swingling Tow, and Posnum fur; which cannot fail to gratify taste”.