It’s Christmas time. You’re getting in the spirit, decorating for the holidays, and you’re most likely putting up a tree.
A Christmas tree if you will. With lots of ornaments, tinsel, snow, and lights, Christmas trees have easily become one of the most adorned symbols for the holiday season—yet have you ever wondered why this interesting tradition of decorating trees exists?
Christmas trees, as simple as they may seem, actually have a very complicated history. Many would automatically associate this tradition with the Christian faith, including myself. Which makes sense considering Christmas is in the name, but this is a big misconception.
Many have also incorrectly attributed the origin of Christmas trees to England, specifically Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 and 1901. This confusion was due to a published drawing in 1848 London News of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle”. This drawing depicted Queen Victoria, her German husband, Prince Albert, and their young children around a tree which was set-up on a table. This event however did not start the tradition, it only credited Britain to popularizing the trees in the UK and US.
In fact, long before this association to Christianity or England, Christmas trees were tied to Pagan tradition during the Winter Solstice as early as fourth century C.E.. The Pagan tradition existed to remind them that the awaited spring time was coming to fill their lives with color after such dull winters.
The trees gave them hope. So many European Pagans dressed their homes with branches of evergreen fir trees to take away the dullness of winter. Some countries during this time also believed that the evergreens would keep away spirits, witches, illnesses, and ghosts. Zlata Rodionova from I News UK mentions that even “Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia, which was held in the end of December in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture.”
Christmas trees are also know to have begun as German “Paradise Trees”. These were basically wooden branches or frames that were decorated with apples. These were used in medieval plays for churches during the advent and Christmas Eve.
Some researchers have found that In early church calendars of saints, December 24th was considered Adam and Eve’s day. The Paradise Tree represented the Garden of Eden. It was often paraded around the town before the play started, as a way of advertising the play. The plays told Bible stories to people who could not read.
Though the tree tradition may go way back in various forms, we are still left wondering where did all the decoration come from and when did we start bringing the trees we see now into our homes?
The modern Christmas tree we know today is said to have been started by Germany in the 16th century. They would decorate the Paradise Trees as they did before but now they did this with more decorations including communion wafers, stars, bells, angels, etc. causing them to gain a new name, the “Christbaum” or “Christ Tree”.
This eventually developed into actual trees, and those who couldn’t afford to buy trees would make a stack of wood into the shape of pyramids around the holiday season but most of the time these were not inside homes and carried from house to house.
During this century, the first to drag a tree into their home was allegedly the Protestant reformer named Martin Luther. Roldionova says, “Legend suggests he was inspired by the stars shining through branches during a winter night walk and sought to re-create the magical scene in his own home by erecting a tree and decorating it with candlelight.”
Christmas trees that were brought inside were mainly done so by Slavic countries, parts of Poland, and of course Germany, where they would hang trees from the ceilings.
With that being said, Christmas trees have been through many shapes and forms while also standing the tests of time. As classic as the tradition is, it will be interesting to see how the tradition will adapt to the near future. Until then, happy decorating!