December 14, 2012 5:12 pm

The Tannenbaum tracked

A brief, beautifully illustrated, potted history of a Yuletide tradition

Inventing the Christmas Tree, by Bernd Brunner, translated by Benjamin A Smith, Yale University Press, RRP£12.99, 96 pages


The decorated tree is now a standard part of most Christmas festivities. But where did the tradition originate? And why do we hang baubles and tinsel on a fir brought into our homes?

Bernd Brunner, a German writer, has gone in search of some answers in this brief, beautifully illustrated, potted history of the Christmas tree. He traces its origins to a handful of European traditions from the Middle Ages. Some early mentions of Christmas trees place the first in Tallinn, Estonia in 1441 or Freiburg, Germany in 1419 when a tree was decorated with apples and gingerbread. The trend must have been prevalent in late 15th-century Strasbourg; the cutting of pine branches at New Year was forbidden.

He charts the development of lights (did Martin Luther place the first candle on a tree?) and decorations: tinsel, it turns out, was inspired by bundles of wire left over from metalwork and was known colloquially in German as “silver-plated sauerkraut”. A charming gift book that should find a place under many a tree this year.

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