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