The fir tree – the original Christmas tree
It was in Alsace, and more specifically in the Humanist Library in the town of Sélestat, that the first written mention of the sale of Christmas trees was made in the town's archives. Not a particularly surprising discovery given that Alsace is considered the cradle of the Christmas tree. Here's how the story goes...
The existence of decorated trees in Alsace dates back to the Middle Ages
On 24 December, a fir tree was placed in the choir of churches where, as part of the "Jeu d'Adam et Eve", an enactment of the "Adam and Eve" story, it represented a paradise tree adorned with apples as a reminder of the fruit of temptation.
As time passed, wafers, the Eucharist symbol, and fruits of redemption were also added to the tree.
As a result, and from the start of the 16th century onwards, parishioners gradually replaced fir branches in their own homes with whole trees decorated in a similar manner.
The first trees were suspended from the ceiling with an apple at their base, or decorated with small red apples known as "Christkindl" (Christ Child). From the end of the 16th century, roses and other flowers made from multicoloured paper or occasionally from thin leaves of finely worked gilded metal were added as a reminder of the Tree of Jesse (representing the genealogy of Christ) as well as the Christmas Rose.
Come the late 18th and early 19th centuries, gold- and silver-plated walnuts also became popular decorative features. Wafers were gradually replaced by Bredela biscuits, and by sweets made from sugar, marzipan and aniseed cake.
During the second half of the 19th century the printing and pressing of glossy images became more widespread. These images were cut out and embossed, and then stuck onto figures made from sugar or chocolate. Icing sugar was then invented, resulting in the coating of Bredela biscuits with coloured granules. In addition, gingerbread started to be wonderfully decorated with sugar and printed images.
The late 19th century saw the first appearance of wax figurines – decorative features that are still used today. Predominantly taking the form of cherubs, they were dressed in thin sheets of gold- or silver-plated metal, which were also used to create garlands and stars. Pine cones were gilded, and additional decoration took the form of balls, spindles, small bells, blown-glass walnuts, artificial glass ice cubes, tinsel and blown-glass baubles, inspired by the glass-blowers of Meisenthal.
Choosing your Christmas tree and how to reconcile your purchase with respect for the environment:
Christmas tree-related events and activities in Alsace:
- Drawn by horses, Wissembourg's Christmas trees arrive in the town centre on 19 November
- Exhibition highlighting the first recorded mention of the Christmas tree in the Humanist Library in Sélestat from 29 November to 24 December
- The "Grand Sapin" (the giant Christmas tree) takes its place in Strasbourg from 29 November to 31 December
- History of the decoration of Christmas trees through the centuries, from 29 November to 4 January in Sélestat
- "Christmas trees and toys throughout the ages" on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 30 November to 4 January in Bouxwiller