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Photo courtesy of Claridge's
Photo courtesy of Claridge's

Inside the Upside Down: The Murky Origins of a Puzzling Christmas Tree Trend

Photo courtesy of Claridge's
Photo courtesy of Claridge's

In recent years, turning Christmas trees upside down—and occasionally hanging them from the ceiling—has become a bona fide trend. In 2016, London's Tate Britain museum hung a Christmas tree with gold leaf-covered roots upside down from the ceiling. Karl Lagerfeld recently designed one for London's legendary Claridge's hotel (the designer calls Christmas trees "the strongest 'souvenir' of my happy childhood"). Target currently sells an upside down tree for nearly $1000.

An inverted tree can create a gorgeous, memorable display—but the trend is also controversial (and, for some, just plain confusing). Critics argue that the upside down tree is a corruption of the traditional, time-honored method of tree display—that is, trunk toward the ground. Proponents counter that it’s an ancient practice itself—one that was an integral part of early medieval Christmases—and that in the 12th century, it was a tradition in Eastern Europe. The tree, they say, was positioned upside down to create a representation of the Trinity and mimic the shape of a crucifix.

But just how far back does this topsy-turvy practice really go? The fact is, there simply isn’t that much recorded information about early Christmas trees, upside down or otherwise. Which makes the inverted tree mystery as tangled as a string of Christmas lights.

ORIGINS OF A MYTH


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According to myth, the first decorated tree popped up in Latvia in the 1500s (right side up). But as with much of the early history of Christmas trees, even that’s debated—and it’s possible that the Latvia story is a 19th century misinterpretation.

Beyond that, many of the early references to Christmas trees are scattered; most seem to be laws that made the trees illegal (to curb illicit logging) and to regulate which trees could be cut down. A 1561 law in Alsace, which is today part of France, limited a family to “one pine in the length of eight shoes.” There’s another reference that dates back to 1570 in a guild chronicle from Bremen; the guild allowed children to shake a tree in order to dislodge treats like apples and nuts that had been placed in it.

Around the internet, a popular tale traces the origin of the Christmas tree to St. Boniface in the 8th century. As the tale goes, Boniface supposedly saw pagans worshipping an oak tree. To stop them, he cut the tree down, and a fir grew in its place. Boniface used the shape of the tree—a triangle—to represent the Trinity. According to some sources, Boniface hung the tree upside down.

Some people use the story to argue that the Christmas tree is much older than the 16th century. But according to the 8th century bishop Willibald, whose tome The Life of Saint Boniface is the main source on the Saint’s life, this tale is mostly a myth. Written just a few years after Boniface’s death, The Life of Saint Boniface discusses the oak but never the fir, saying that when Boniface cut the oak down, it “burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord.” Boniface then built an oratory from the timber. There's no mention of a fir tree, either upside down or right-side up.

Boniface isn't the only theory for the origin of upside down Christmas trees: Another says that an inverted tree is a Central and Eastern European tradition dating back to the 12th century. But according to the Polish Art Center, before Christmas trees became popular in Poland in the 1900s, it wasn't an entire tree but the tip of a fir tree or a branch that was hung from the rafters pointing down, usually toward the dinner table.

There is some historical precedent for hanging entire trees from the ceiling, however. In his book Inventing the Christmas Tree, Bernd Brunner includes an illustration of a hanging tree from the 19th century. But it’s hanging with the trunk facing the ground, not upside down with the tip facing the floor. “In the small common rooms of the lower classes," Brenner explains, "there was simply no space for [a tree on the ground].”

Hanging trees may have emerged because it was a convenient way to have a small Christmas tree without it being in the way, with the added bonus that it kept any treats that were on the tree away from children. Brunner also mentions that trees were occasionally hung upside down to protect the household, but that practice doesn't seem to have been widespread.

So what did hanging trees in? Brunner theorizes that it was partly due to rafters giving way to the rise of plastered ceilings. "The most they could bear was perhaps an Advent wreath or a wooden frame with candles," he writes.

BACK TO THE UPSIDE DOWN


Photo courtesy of Claridge's

Recently, however, hanging trees have made a comeback. The trend seems to have started in retail stores, and the goal is the same as it was in the 19th century: to free up space. "By having a tree upside down, you're taking a very small footprint on the floor, and you're placing all the ornaments at eye level," Dan Loughman, vice president of product development at Roman Incorporated, told NPR in 2005. "And then the retailers can move their store products around the bottom of the tree or on shelves, you know, just behind it."

That year, store owners reported bewildered responses to the inverted trees, but the trend hung on, and in 2017, it seems to be gaining ground beyond the shopping mall. As Loughman said in 2005, "I think consumers go into retail stores to buy ornaments, and they buy their trim and—to get a certain look. Whatever they see in the store they want to replicate at home."

If you feel inspired to spice up your tree trimming this year, there are many options out there, from Amazon to Home Depot to Walmart. Or you can go the traditional Polish route and cut off the tip of a fir tree off and hang that from the ceiling.

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40 Years Later: Watch The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

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7 Spine-Tingling Tales of Christmas Ghosts
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Traditionally, Christmas in England was a time for scaring the bejesus out of little children by telling ghost stories around the fire. Charles Dickens led the way with his famous ghost story A Christmas Carol, but what of the "real" ghosts said to haunt the land at Christmas time? Below are seven spine-tingling and seasonal stories of Christmas ghosts.

1. THE HAUNTED CHRISTMAS FEAST AT ALCATRAZ

Dinner hall at Alcatraz
Alex Light, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The island of Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco, has a long and spooky history. In its earlier days, Native Americans allegedly used to banish miscreants to the island as punishment, where they were reportedly plagued by the local spirits. Alcatraz, of course, became a notorious federal prison in 1934, housing criminals such as Al Capone before it was shut down in 1963. Today, visitors to the island report hearing screams, the clanging of metal doors, and the sound of voices within the walls. One of the more famous tales associated with the island supposedly occurred in the 1940s, when warden James Johnston held a Christmas Day party at his residence for the staff at the prison. The good cheer is said to have been brought to a swift halt when an apparition sporting mutton-chop whiskers and a gray suit appeared. The temperature in the room plummeted and the fire blew out, before returning to normal when the spirit disappeared about a minute later. The rattled guards were too scared to stay in the residence, and the rest of the Christmas celebration ended abruptly.

2. THE GHOSTLY QUEEN RETURNING HOME AT HEVER CASTLE

Hever Castle
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Anne Boleyn is notorious as the second of King Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives. To marry Anne, Henry spent years seeking a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and went on to sever England’s relationship with the Catholic Church in Rome, forever changing the course of British history. Despite the lengths he went to ensnare her, Henry soon grew tired of Anne and, choosing to believe the idle gossip surrounding her, had her beheaded in 1536. A number of reports exist of the ghost of Anne Boleyn, but perhaps the most affecting is the version said to haunt her childhood home, Hever Castle in Kent. Some say that every Christmas Eve, the spectral figure of Anne Boleyn can be seen slowly gliding across the bridge over the river Eden toward her family home, where she was at her happiest.

3. THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN AT ROOS HALL


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Roos Hall in Suffolk lays claim to being one of the most haunted houses in England. The 16th century hall has a number of sinister connections, including a gruesome “hanging tree”—an oak tree planted at the site of the old gibbet where numerous criminals were hung. To make things even spookier, inside one of the building's cupboards, the mark of a devil’s cloven hoof is said to be imprinted. But perhaps the most dramatic haunting is supposed to happen every Christmas Eve: Legend has it that a headless horseman clatters down the driveway with his four black horses pulling a phantom coach, terrifying anyone who witnesses him.

4. THE HAUNTED DINING ROOM AT THE CRESCENT HOTEL

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was built in 1886 and is rumoured to harbor numerous ghosts, who seem to be especially playful during the holidays. One Christmas, the staff came down to set up the dining room only to find the Christmas tree had been moved from one side of the room to the other. Another year, all the menus in the dining room had been scattered around the room. Other visitors have reported seeing groups of ghostly dancers clad in Victorian-era clothing, whirling around the deserted dance floor.

5. THE GHOSTLY GATHERING OF KINGS AT WAWEL CASTLE

View of the Wawel Cathedral from the Wawel Castle entrance
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Poland's Wawel Royal Castle was built on Wawel Hill in the 1500s. Within the hill lies a deep cave known as Smocza Jama (Dragon’s Den); legend has it that a great dragon once lived there, terrorizing the locals, before Prince Krak bravely vanquished the dragon and brought peace to Poland. To memorialize this event, a statue of the dead dragon now stands in the cave. Go deeper into the cave and you come to yet another chamber, and it is here that on December 24 every year, all the long-gone kings of Poland are said to meet and hold a spectral special council.

6. THE MISTLETOE BRIDE AT BRAMSHILL HOUSE

The Long Gallery, Bramshill House
Tsukiko YAMAMURA, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the early 17th century, a young woman named Anne was to be married on Christmas Day at Bramshill House in Hampshire, England. After the ceremony and feast, as was tradition at the time, the guests were all set to carry the bride to the bedchamber. Anne suggested a game be played, and asked for a five-minute head start before the guests came to find her. Everyone searched long and hard for Anne, but no sign of her could be found. At first they thought she had played a merry trick, but soon a sense of unease fell over the guests. The bridegroom, Lord Lovell, was distraught, and guests began to whisper that she must have fled. Days, weeks, months, and years passed, and Lord Lovell never stopped looking for his bride. One day, some 50 years after her disappearance, Lord Lovell was up in the huge attic of the sprawling mansion, where he began tapping on the oak panelling. As he knocked, a long-hidden secret door sprung open, and inside he found an ornate wooden chest. He pried open the heavy wooden lid, and there, still in her wedding dress and clutching her mistletoe bouquet, were the skeletal remains of his beloved. The scratch marks on the inside of the lid of the chest attested to her desperate, but futile, effort to free herself from her hiding space. (While the story appears in many variations, Bramshill House is thought to be the most likely site.)

7. THE APPARITION OF A MURDERED HIGHWAYMAN IN KENT

A burial in the forest
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One Christmas Eve near the close of the 18th century, a notorious highwayman named Gilbert is said to have stopped a coach and horses on the Hawkhurst Road in Marden, Kent. The coach contained a young lady and her father, and Gilbert ordered them out onto the road. Just as the girl stepped out, the horses bolted, taking the coach and her father with them. The young lady was left alone on the dark road with the highwayman, and as she looked into his face, she recognized him as the very same highwayman who had murdered her brother some years earlier. Horrified, she drew a hidden knife from her bag and stabbed Gilbert in the side, fleeing into the bushes. When the horses were calmed and the coach returned a little while later, the men discovered the bloodied body of the highwayman, and buried him at the side of the road. When villagers found the woman in the forest the next day, she had gone completely mad. They avoided that spot in the road for many years, and it's said that every Christmas Eve, the bloody scene is silently replayed to all that pass through.

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