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"). In 2017, Target sold an upside down tree for nearly $1000. Now, pop singer Ariana Grande has mounted her tree on her ceiling, top towards the floor.

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

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

A version of this story ran in 2017.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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How Gangsters and the Media Helped Make Trick or Treating a Halloween Tradition

Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

On Halloween night in 1934, a scene played out in Helena, Montana, that the local newspaper, the Helena Independent, related as though it were a scene out of a mafia confrontation [PDF]. A group of teenagers roughly 15 to 16 years old knocked on a woman’s door and asserted they were there for the purposes of trick or treating. When the woman refused their request, they opted for a third outcome—property damage. The kids smashed her birdbath.

The paper identified the group’s “leader” as “Pretty Boy” John Doe, a nod to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a notorious gangster who had been killed in a police shootout just two weeks before. In media and in the minds of kids, the then-novel practice of trick or treating on Halloween was not quite innocent fun. It was emblematic of the public’s infatuation with civil disobedience and organized crime, and it would take no lesser positive influences than Donald Duck and Charlie Brown to make adults believe Halloween wasn’t merely a training ground for America’s youth to become hoodlums.

 

Trick or treating is a relatively new phenomenon in North America. The concept of going door to door and requesting candy on Halloween was virtually unheard-of prior to the 1920s, though it did have antecedents in ancient history. In the Middle Ages, following the Catholic Church’s re-appropriation of Celtic celebrations, kids would dress as saints, angels, and demons in what was known as “guising,” from “disguising.” These cloaked figures would go from one door to the next, requesting food or money in exchange for singing their benefactors a song or praying. This solicitation was known as “souling,” and children and poor adults who engaged in it were known as “soulers.”

Scottish and Irish immigrants likely brought guising over to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the same time, kids were in the habit of dressing up for other holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, and requesting money. When costumed events for Halloween became more prevalent and citywide celebrations were organized to help discourage kids from playing pranks, private groups began planning door-to-door visits in the 1920s. That’s when the disparate elements of costumes, mild pranks like ringing a doorbell and then running off, and getting treats all converged, seemingly taking a more sinister turn.

Early trick or treating was serious business.Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Writing in the American Journal of Play in 2011 [PDF], author Samira Kawash took a closer look at the rise in popularity of trick or treating and the seeming glorification of organized crime figures during the economically turbulent period of the 1930s. It’s little coincidence, Kawash wrote, that kids began to approach trick or treating as a form of extortion just as antiheroes achieved infamy in newspapers. The media reflected this influence, often writing of pranks in breathless terms. The threat of soaping windows if targets didn’t pay up in the form of treats was nothing more than a juvenile version of a mobster offering “protection” to a shopkeeper. Demands for candy could be considered a “shakedown.” The treats were “edible plunder.” Roving groups of costumed kids were “goon squads.” Some kids even bypassed requests for candy and demanded money instead.

In some parts of the country, the idea of making a choice between handing out food or suffering from a “trick” was new. In Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1938, a group of young boys told local police chief Paul Acton about their success. “We knock on the door,” one said, “and ask if they’d rather give us a treat, or have us dump over the garbage pail. Boy, have we been eating!”

The media took a critical approach to this new tradition, warning readers that such activities could be creating the criminals of tomorrow. Not everyone responded kindly to it, either. In Brooklyn, a school principal responded to a trick or treat offer by slapping a child across the face after he was admonished by a tyke to “hand it over or else.” Trick or treating had morphed from a pitiable request for charity to a sneering threat of property destruction in lieu of a candy bar.

 

Trick or treating began to lose some of its edge during World War II, when sugar rationing disrupted the entire concept of Halloween and vandalizing homes seemed especially cruel considering the global threat to democracy. In Reno, Nevada, in 1942, a school superintendent named E.O. Vaughn told principals and teachers to caution kids against knocking on doors, both because of the war and because it had a “tinge of gangsterism.” By the time candy had resumed normal production and the nation was no longer mired in war or a financial crisis, it had settled into something mostly innocent. (But not totally without mischief. In 1948, local police in Dunkirk, New York, advised adults to phone them when a group of kids was spotted so cops could “round up the children.”)

By the 1950s, trick or treating was less about property damage and more about having fun with friends.Joe Clark, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Helping restore the reputation of trick or treating were two familiar icons in popular culture. In 1951, Charles Schulz drew a series of Peanuts comic strips that featured Charlie Brown and his friends going door to door. (Peppermint Patty uses Charlie Brown’s head as inspiration for her pumpkin carving.) The strip, read by millions of people daily, normalized the practice. So did Trick or Treat, a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon that was released theatrically and featured Donald caught in a battle of tricks with nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Further legitimizing the practice of demanding treats was the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF, which provided boxes for kids to collect their sugary bounty as well as request spare change. The effort eventually raised $175 million and returned trick or treating to its more charitable origins.

Although Halloween has settled into a widely understood arrangement in which candy is distributed without any overt threat of birdbath-bashing, not everyone has abandoned the brute force aspects of the 1930s. According to data compiled by GateHouse Media and taken from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, there were 19,900 acts of vandalism on October 31 over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2018. Only New Year’s Day was more eventful, with 21,000 acts committed in the same timeframe. For many, Halloween is a time to collect treats. For others, it remains the season for tricks.