A Little History of Hungarian Christmas Trees

If we had the chance to go back in time to the pre-1800s, and have a look inside the palace windows of Palatine Joseph, the salon of the Podmaniczky family or the kindergarten in Krisztina Town we could see the first Christmas trees, set up in Hungary. 

Originating form 16th century German Protestant roots it arrived in Hungary at this time according to the legends. From then, it became more and more popular when in the middle of the 20th century it reached almost all homes from West to East from small peasant homes to middle-class urban houses.

Among peasants, Christmas trees became popular from the pre-20th century, influenced by the nobility and the middle-classes, a cultural element also strengthened by soldiers participating in wars.

In making the Christmas tree more popular, schools, kindergartens, hospitals and orphanages played an important role,

as they set up trees already in the 19th century. Before that time of setting up Christmas trees by peasants, traditions included setting up flowering branches, leafy twigs, decorated fruit spurs: fruit spur on Barbara day or wheat on Saint Lucia day, symbolizing the renewal of nature. In the dark of winter, green symbolized light, warmth and fertility and it also served to keep away the evil.

Other relations of the tree, connected to Christianity can also be associated with Christmas. The tree, as a family tree – Yahweh sprig – can refer to Jesus’ family, or it may refer to the tree in the Garden of Eden in the sense of the ‘tree of knowledge’ on which the forbidden fruit, the apple hangs. The tree of life symbolizes fertility or life itself.

From the pre-20th century, more and more trees were decorated in villages. Pine trees, junipers and their branches were set up standing or hanging from the beams above the table or into the representative so-called ‘clean room’. Trees could be hung from the ceiling either by their head or their stem. If they stood, they were fixed into a simple, cross-shaped stand.

Legend of Origin About the Pine Tree

When the Lord Jesus was being pursued, the pine bent down before him and he went hiding under the tree. A bird always decoyed the pursuers by calling out: ‘Here, here, here!’ The bird flew on, and the other tree bent up when he stood under the branches. Therefore the leaves fall off in winter, but the other tree will always stay green. God blessed it to be green forever. And that little bird will walk around on the ground forever. It can’t fly high. This bird is the crested lark. It’s got that bun on its head. (Annamária Lammel-Ilona Nagy: Peasant Bible / The crested lark)

Legend of Origin About Christmas Tree

Once upon a time lived a hunter far from people, far from the village. He lived with his wife in the middle of a dense forest. One year thick snow covered the forest and the hunter’s house. Once when he returned from feeding the wild animals in the forest, great joy was waiting for him. A son was born to them. To celebrate, he set up a Christmas tree in the room. When news reached the villagers, they also decorated a pine. That is the reason why people dress up a pine at the time of Christmas. (Legend of the birth of the Christmas tree from Csernely, North-East Hungary, Palócok IV. Rites and Folklore)

A Little History of Hungarian Christmas Trees

1535/1536 – According to legend, Martin Luther sets up a tree for his children

1604/1605, Strasbourg – Setting up a pine tree  (Authentic notes of a traveller)

1660, Heidelberg – Setting up a Christmas tree in the childhood of Countess of Pfalz

1765 – Goethe gets to know the Christmas tree and writes about it in ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ in 1774

1814, Vienna – The house of banker family Arnstein setting up the first Christmas tree

1815, Berlin – The first Christmas tree in the home of Wilhelm Humboldt, founder of the Berlin University

1819 – Joseph Palatine’s third wife Mary Dorothy set up the first Christmas tree in Buda

1824 – Theresa Brunswick had a Christmas tree set up in her nursery institute in Krisztina Town

1828 – According to Baron Frederick Podmaniczky, it was his mother who set up a Christmas tree for the first time

1832 – Setting up a Christmas tree in the kindergarten Trnava / Nagyszombat

1842 – The Christmas tree was there even in the poorest families’ houses in Wien, according to a newspaper in Dresden

1854 – First mentioning in fiction in Mór Jókai’s short story ‘The Child Beggar’, which appeared in the Sunday Newspaper in Hungary

Second half of the 1850s, Alsósztregova – A tree is set up in Imre  Madách’s estate

1857 – The members of the 1848 emigration started setting up trees at home after the amnesty in 1857

Second half of the 19th century –  The custom to set up Christmas trees is spreading widely in the middle classes

1860’s – Major Christmas tree fairs are held in Pest

Last third of the 19th century – It is the intellectuals that start setting up trees: priests, notaries, school teachers, landowners set up a tree

1914-1918 / First World War – Hungarian soldiers came across the tree in common regiments

First half of the 20th century –  The spread of the erected, decorated Christmas in Hungary

Midst of the 20th century –  Christmas tree rises to popularity and finds its way into the households of Hungary