Artificial Christmas trees

Unfortunately, it is unknown when the first artificial Christmas tree was produced and sold in Europe. The earliest reference I know of so far is from 1852.[i] It reports that Germans living in Paris and some wealthy French families bought small artificial Christmas trees for New Year's Day.[ii] New Year's Day in France at that time played the same role as Christmas in Germany. Gifts to the family or lady of the house were sweets or chocolates in "cute little boxes or cartons". The author of the report writes as if it was common knowledge that there were artificial Christmas trees. Another source from 1853 reports of "fir trees made of paper."[iii]

There were two main reasons for the production and purchase of artificial Christmas trees. Firstly, from the authorities, who feared the annual devastation of forests by the cutting down of Christmas trees and wanted a remedy. On the other hand, from the buyers, who could save themselves the annual purchase of an expensive tree. However, an artificial Christmas tree also found staunch opponents. For example, in the circles of the 'strict' German Christmas lovers. In their eyes, an artificial tree was an insult to the original German Christmas tradition.

Those who were not deterred by this, initially had to accept a decisive disadvantage. It was the size of the first artificial Christmas trees. They were mostly rather small. But this shortcoming was soon remedied. As early as 1859, artificial Christmas trees were offered up to a height of 4 metres. [iv]

The advantage of all the artificial Christmas trees, then as now, was that they did not lose their needles, could be stored in a space-saving way (as the branches were bendable) and could be reused year after year. However, older goose feather trees also tend to lose a few feathers.

The ingredients for a goose feather tree were a vertical (wooden) stick, green coloured goose feathers (sometimes also peacock or turkey feathers) and wire. The feathers were dyed green, and the wet feathers stuck together and became similar to pine needles when they dried. The feathers were wrapped around a sturdier wire using thin wires. The connections thus created were shaped into branches and attached to the stick in a step-like manner. The 'branches' had small red berries at the end, which were formed from mass. (Austrian variants sometimes also have small candles that were recreated from paper). The effort of the manufacturers was to make the little trees look as real as possible.

On youtube you can find a video: a premium goose feather tree

One more special feature must be mentioned at this point: There are miniature Christmas trees that were added to the various Father Christmases, Belsnickels and Knecht Ruprecht variants as decoration, among others. In the very early examples made in Sonneberg, Thuringia, the needle substitute was made of duck feathers or moss. The branch ends were partly bent upwards and painted white to create the impression of candles. Such specimens, which were usually only stuck in a metal case, were unfortunately very easily lost, which is why they are extremely rare to find today.

What curious peculiarities there still were in the field of artificial Christmas trees is shown by an example from Vienna in 1859:

"In a rich household the natural fir tree was found too weak to carry all the heavy gifts; the little burning wax candles flamed too dully for the glitter-lovers - and so they constructed a tree of gas tubes, wrapped it in fir brushwood, hung the rich gifts on it, and the whole glory was magically illuminated by 500 gas flames."[v]

By 1887, people were well aware of the decorative effect of small goose feather trees. In an article for the magazine Fürs Haus, there is a note on how the little trees could be used as table decorations:

"If the meal takes place in the evening, the lighting can be arranged in a peculiar way. Next to each place setting, place a small feather fir tree, like the ones you can buy at the Christmas market, and light the little lights on it. It looks lovely."[vi]

Due to their size as well as their light weight, artificial Christmas trees could ideally be sent by field post to the front during the First and Second World Wars as a gift to give the soldiers at least a little bit of home Christmas spirit.

The increasing demand for the goose feather trees after the First World War meant that not all orders could be fulfilled due to a lack of feathers. The manufacturers therefore came up with the idea of making the 'pine needles' from thin, incised green paper strips or chenille. As with the goose feather trees, the material was wrapped around the wires and formed into branches. Still later in the 20th century, the paper strips were replaced by green plastic strips.

In December 1942, Hermann Göring had a few dozen small artificial Christmas trees brought by the Luftwaffe to the 200,000 encircled soldiers in Stalingrad. The small firs were decorated and adorned with tinsel, golden stars and bells. Nevertheless, Christmas spirit was unlikely to have arisen. [vii]

In the late 1950s, artificial plastic Christmas trees (from 1956) and aluminium Christmas trees (from 1958) appeared on the market in America. Aluminium Christmas trees could not establish themselves in the long run.

Nowadays, there are no longer any restrictions on what a Christmas tree should look like. Of course, you can still find many traditional trees, but a look on the internet will show you how many imaginative Christmas trees are made. In addition to traditional specifications, Christmas trees nowadays are made of driftwood, fabric, plastic boxes, metal, glass and much more.

[i] In the issue of the Illustrierte Zeitung from Leipzig dated 26 December 1846 (p. 182), there is a passage that talks about a "little Christmas tree decorated with small wax lights" that could be bought at the Christmas market for two groschen (24 pfennings). Unfortunately, it is not clear from the text whether it was an artificial tree or a small real fir tree.

[ii] See also: Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Leipzig 1852, No. 457 (Friday, 31 December).

[iii] See on this: Deutsche Vierteljahrs Schrift, zweites Heft, Stuttgart und Tübingen 1853, p. 316.

[iv] See: Miszellen; in: Die Neue Zeit. Olmüzer Zeitung, XII. Jg. (1859), No. 1 (1 January).

[v] Miscellanies; in: Die Neue Zeit. Olmüzer Zeitung, XII. Jg. (1859), No. 1 (1 January).

[vi] Letter to the Editor by F. M on Dresden: Decorating a Christmas Table; in: Fürs Haus. Praktisches Wochenblatt für alle Hausfrauen, No. 271 (10 December 1887), VI. Jg. (1887/88), p. 85.

[vii] A copy is in the Military History Museum of the German Armed Forces in Dresden.