The Christmas tree is a mandala, a bundle of symbols showing what creation has to offer: light and the movement of angels, the gifts of orchard and field, forest and sea, all topped off by the star that pointed to the end of the journey, the place of peace.

During Advent in the XIth century, scenes called mysteries, including one about Paradise, were very popular. A tree decorated with red apples symbolized the tree of Paradise. During the XVth century, the faithful began to put up trees in their own houses on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve.

However, the first Christmas tree as we know it, but without lights still, appeared in Alsace in 1521. It was introduced in France by the Princess Hélène de Mecklembourg, who brought one to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. In the XVIIIth century, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was well established in Germany, France and Austria.

In 1841, Prince Albert (originally from Germany), husband of Queen Victoria, set up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in England. From the royal court, the custom of Christmas trees spread quickly to the middle class and then to working people. For V Read More

The Christmas tree is a mandala, a bundle of symbols showing what creation has to offer: light and the movement of angels, the gifts of orchard and field, forest and sea, all topped off by the star that pointed to the end of the journey, the place of peace.

During Advent in the XIth century, scenes called mysteries, including one about Paradise, were very popular. A tree decorated with red apples symbolized the tree of Paradise. During the XVth century, the faithful began to put up trees in their own houses on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve.

However, the first Christmas tree as we know it, but without lights still, appeared in Alsace in 1521. It was introduced in France by the Princess Hélène de Mecklembourg, who brought one to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. In the XVIIIth century, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was well established in Germany, France and Austria.

In 1841, Prince Albert (originally from Germany), husband of Queen Victoria, set up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in England. From the royal court, the custom of Christmas trees spread quickly to the middle class and then to working people. For Victorians, a good Christmas tree had to be six branches tall and be placed on a table covered with a white damask tablecloth. It was decorated with garlands, candies and paper flowers.

The Christmas tree was introduced to Canada around the end of the XVIIIth century even before it became a common practice in England. The various ornaments with which it was decorated were first made at home before being commercially produced. In the middle of the XVIIth century, Christmas trees were illuminated with little candles. These were replaced at the beginning of the XXth century by electric bulbs. Other variations like outdoor and artificial Christmas trees as appeared around the beginning of the XXth century.


© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Original Sin

The tree of Paradise is covered in red apples. In Alsace, Christmas eve is given over to Adam and Eve. Redemption by the son of God-made-man was rendered necessary by Adam's sin. This evocation preceded the depiction of the nativity. Cathechism in pictures, no 58 - chromolithograph

Photo: Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Parisian Christmas tree

Fashion engraving showing women and children in 1890's-style clothes around a Christmas tree.

Photo : Musée national des Arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France.
Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Dining Room of the Victorian Period

Reconstruction from the Milot House in the Place Royale, Quebec City. On the extreme left is a "Victorian" Christmas tree set up on a table covered with a white tablecloth.

Photograph: Musée de la civilisation, André Kedl, 1993
Musée de la civilisation, Québec,C anada

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


The first German immigrants to the United States brought with them the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas. In Canada, this tradition was also introduced by a German. In 1781, General Von Riedesel planted the first Christmas tree on Quebec soil at Sorel. This custom spread in the Victorian period although it was limited to the middle class. After 1920, the practice began to appear in large cities. In rural areas, however, the decorated tree did not become a familiar sight until the 1930s.

Towards the end of the XIXth century, the fashion for small trees placed on tables gave way to one of large-scale trees because of the arrival on the market of the first metal tree stands. The working classes replaced these expensive stands by two crossed wooden boards nailed together or by a pail filled with earth in which the tree was planted.

The tradition of the natural Christmas tree is still very much alive. Balsam tree farming is expanding rapidly in Canada. Each year, more than a million of these trees are cut and tens of thousands are exported to the United States, Mexico, Venezuela and even as far away as Germany.

The first German immigrants to the United States brought with them the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas. In Canada, this tradition was also introduced by a German. In 1781, General Von Riedesel planted the first Christmas tree on Quebec soil at Sorel. This custom spread in the Victorian period although it was limited to the middle class. After 1920, the practice began to appear in large cities. In rural areas, however, the decorated tree did not become a familiar sight until the 1930s.

Towards the end of the XIXth century, the fashion for small trees placed on tables gave way to one of large-scale trees because of the arrival on the market of the first metal tree stands. The working classes replaced these expensive stands by two crossed wooden boards nailed together or by a pail filled with earth in which the tree was planted.

The tradition of the natural Christmas tree is still very much alive. Balsam tree farming is expanding rapidly in Canada. Each year, more than a million of these trees are cut and tens of thousands are exported to the United States, Mexico, Venezuela and even as far away as Germany.


© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Old-fashioned Christmas Tree

This large Christmas tree was set up by the Musée de la civilisation as part of the exhibit, Noël ancien (Christmas of Yesteryear), presented during the 1993-1994 holidays. The tree displays many ornaments produced over a period of more than a century.

Photo : Musée de la civilisation, Pierre Soulard, 1993
Collection : Musée de la civilisation, Quebec, Canada

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


A Lumberjack with two fir trees

For over thirty years, the family and friends of Sandy Monez have gathered at his central Alberta farm for an annual Christmas tree hunt. Together, they stomp through the woods of the Monez family homestead, trading childhood memories and searching for that perfect tree.

Photo : Daryl-Noël Rydman, 1993
Collection : Private collection

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify how people, events, and ideas of the past shape the present
  • Describe some Christmas traditions in Canada, with examples
  • Compare Christmas traditions between cultures, and over time
  • Recognize that material history and popular culture are illustrations of historical change

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans