The fir has long been the symbol of Christmas in Christian homes. A well-established tradition in Alsace for over 5 centuries, the Christmas tree would have crossed the blue line of the Vosges mountains to conquer French families only after the 1870s. At the heart of Alsace and the Rhine valley, the beautiful town of Sélestat retains in its Humanist Library the oldest written mention of the now famous Christmas Tree (1521). Sélestat displays every year in December, a beautiful exhibition dedicated to its fetish tree.

Christmas tree decorated with paper flowers.
Christmas tree decorated with paper flowers. From the end of the 16th Century, flowers made of multi-coloured paper joined the apples and the hosts on the Christmas trees.

The Christmas tree, a tree back in time …

Long before Christianity, at the time of our ancestors the Celts, people were looking forward to the end of the winter, the cold, the long dark nights and leafless trees. The fir, evergreen tree with its evergreen needles, mistletoe and holly plants were venerated. One celebrated the winter solstice marking the longest night but also announcing the longer days that would follow. The Romans also decorated their houses with green boughs in honor of their god Janus, who gave his name to the month of January. In Riga, in the Baltic countries, they keep a written record dating back to the year 1510, about a decorated tree burned on the occasion of New Year.

Christmas fir at the Saint Georges church in Selestat. The fir is decorated as it was back in the Middle Ages, with apples and hosts.
Christmas fir at the Saint Georges church in Selestat. The fir is decorated as it was back in the Middle Ages, with apples and hosts.

Presumably this old Celtic custom was perpetuated by Christians, especially in the Rhineland. Christians will put firs in front of churches. These trees will make up the “mysteries” played in winter. At a time when those who could read and write were few, teaching the most important moments in the Bible in the way of a small theater piece was certainly an effective way to spread knowledge. It seems that one of the most popular themes has been the story of Adam and Eve. In this winter season, the apple tree had long lost its leaves. The fir, king of winter par excellence, perfectly played the role the apple failed to do. Red apples, symbol of temptation were hung on the branches of the tree. Later large white hosts were added. Then symbols of temptation and redemption brought by Christ would be side by side in a perfect decor. This is probably how the Christmas tree, slowly, emerged in the Christian tradition of the Middle Ages.

1521, Sélestat, Alsace – the earliest mention of the Christmas tree

Manuscript kept in the Humanist Library of Selestat in Alsace. Dating back to 1521 and presenting the first known mention of a Christmas tree
The manuscript dating back to 1521 and presenting the first known mention of a Christmas tree: “4 schillings to be paid to the rangers to watch the Christmas trees in the forest”. Kept in the Humanist Library of Selestat in Alsace.

Humanist Library, Library Street, Sélestat

In the parish registers of the Cathedral of Strasbourg mention is made – in 1539 – of a Christmas tree to celebrate Christmas. But it is in a manuscript of the town of Sélestat in Alsace – dating back to 1521 – that the oldest currently known reference to the Christmas tree can be found.

In Sélestat, the Christmas tree is clearly mentioned in a ledger which records an expense of 4 Schillings to pay rangers to oversee the Christmas trees in the municipal forests … and a fine for anyone cut the so-called Christmas firs!

Other documents from the 16th century indicate that punishment will be inflicted on whoever will be caught cutting down Christmas trees (deliberation by the magistrates of the city of Sélestat dated December 17, 1555) and even a description on how to decorate Christmas trees in the city of Sélestat (Balthasar Beck, butler and master of ceremonies, 1600).
We can reasonably assume that if in 1521 already these young firs were so valuable and much sought at it is that the custom of the Christmas tree was already well-established for a long time!

The Humanist Library in Sélestat retains nearly 70,000 documents. Books, maps, prints and even coins, including 460 ancient and modern manuscripts and 550 incunabula (books printed during the second half of the fifteenth century). The library of the Latin school, founded in 1452 can be considered the oldest public library in Alsace. It includes the private library of the humanist Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547), registered in the Memory of the World by UNESCO in 2011.

Humanist Library in Selestat, Alsace
Humanist Library in Selestat, Alsace. It is the oldest public library in Alsace. It includes the private library of the humanist Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547), registered in the Memory of the World by UNESCO in 2011.

The Humanist Library of Sélestat is at the moment undergoing a beautiful renovation project and extension. The collections have been given shelter during the work.

The manuscript referring to Christmas tree is presented this year in the crypt of the Church of Saint George and can be seen at the same time as the Christmas tree exhibition through the ages (see below).

Saint Georges Church and Crypt

Christmas trees through the ages. Exhibition at St Georges Church.
Christmas trees through the ages. Exhibition St Georges Church. The evergreen tree was central to all wishes and reconciliation between friends and families.

Between myth, legend and childhood memories, the Christmas tree is for most of us the symbol of a holiday that brings together family young and old.
Decorating the Christmas tree has evolved over the history of Alsace. The City of Sélestat reconstructed the most significant steps in the evolution of the decoration of the Christmas tree. With one decorated fir tree for each striking period, they are suspended in the nave of the church of Saint George. From the year 1521 to the present day, they are pretty good evidence of the history of Alsace. I would also stress that they are highlighted by beautiful lighting and clear information displayed in French, English and German.

The Christmas tree exhibition in the Saint Georges church of Selestat comes with clear explanation in 3 languages
The Christmas tree exhibition in the Saint Georges church of Selestat comes with clear explanation in 3 languages

If the tradition of the Christmas tree seems well established since the 1700s in the valley of the Rhine and Germany, the Christmas tree has crossed the blue line of the Vosges to go to the conquest of families in France as from 1871, with emigrants from Alsace and Lorraine who left the area newly annexed by Germany of Bismarck.

Some years before, in 1858, the glassblowers of Meisenthal in the Northern Vosges, had “invented” the Christmas bauble. Following a particularly bad fall season without apples, they hung on the Christmas tree the glass baubles they had made for a completely different use (optical glasses).
Click to learn more about the origins of the Christmas glass bauble.

Christmas bauble by the glass blowers of Meisenthal.
Christmas bauble by the glass blowers of Meisenthal. First time was in 1858 in the northern region of the Vosges. This has a special personal meaning for me since some of my ancesters came from Switzerland back in 1690 to settle in the Meisenthal – St-Louis area to work in the new-born glass and crystal industry.

Church Saint-Georges and cryptNov 29 to January 4, 2015. Open Monday to Sunday from 9:00 to 19:00 (outside religious offices). Access to the crypt for disabled visitors by the head of the church. Free access.

Selestat in Alsace, hometown of the Christmas tree deserves a visit in any season but especially during the Christmas period, from end of November to beginning of January.
Selestat in Alsace, hometown of the Christmas tree deserves a visit in any season but especially during the Christmas period, from end of November to beginning of January.

Christmas Firs along the streets of Sélestat

Firs straight down from the locals forests, pines in cloth of lights, fir and contemporary symbolic …
In Sélestat, the Christmas tree is found everywhere and in many clothes …

The Garden of the Christmas Tree

Court of the “Sisters of Niederbronn” – Hotel Saint-Lô / 7 Place du Marché aux Choux

At twilight the tree in his garden sparkles …
The Christmas tree had to have his garden … Sélestat natural forest temporary space where the visitor will discover several essences, evergreens and conifers at once, in a setting with natural colors, embellished and highlighted in the fall of night.

November 29, 2014 to January 4, 2015
7 place du Marché aux Choux
Open every day from 9:00 to 19:00 except 24, 25, 26, 31 December and 1 January open 14:00-19:00
Access and visit free.

Illuminated street in Selestat. During the Christmas period (end of November to beginning of January), firs are everywhere in Selestat!
Illuminated street in Selestat. During the Christmas period (end of November to beginning of January), firs are everywhere in Selestat!

Links

The Humanist Library in Sélestat

Tourist Office of Sélestat

Holiday accommodation
Our holiday apartment the MOUNTAIN HIKER, luxury and charm for 2/3 people in La Vancelle, is only a few kilometers from Sélestat.
Our 14 holiday apartments at the Remparts Riquewihr, 15 minutes by car from Sélestat. From the small studio for 2 people to the large luxury apartment for 6.

Christmas firs miniatures. Glass and silver notes at a florist's shop in Selestat.
Christmas firs miniatures. Glass and silver notes at a florist’s shop in Selestat.

 

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