The sight of Christmas trees in December is commonplace today. Lights adorn conifers both indoors and out. Decorations that range from simple homemade treasures to elaborate, expensive ornaments from specialty shops stand out against the dark green boughs. Some trees focus on religious themes, others on the folklore built up around Santa Claus, and still others boast ornaments that reflect on various hobbies and interests. Whether you are looking at a homey tree bedecked with popcorn garlands, a classic tree, or a modern tree, you may find yourself wondering where the whole tradition of trees at Christmas time began. The answer lies long before the first Christmas was celebrated.
Long before Christianity emerged on the religious landscape, trees and plants that remained green throughout the year contained special meaning in the winter. While ancient peoples adorned their doors and windows with evergreen boughs to ward off witches, evil spirits, ghosts, and illnesses, the time of year for using fir, spruce, and pine trees to decorate remains the same. Whether used as a reminder that the sun’s strength would return or as a more modern religious representation of life eternal, the evergreen possessed a similar purpose.
The Northern hemisphere has its shortest day, the winter solstice, on the 21st or 22nd of December each year. Many people of ancient times thought the sun to be a god. That god grew weak and sick each year, but the solstice marked the turning point of the sun’s health. They celebrated at this time because the sun god would grow well. Boughs of evergreens reminded them that green plants would grow again when spring returned with the health of the sun.
Egyptians, Romans, Celts, and Vikings
The pertinent god varied amongst different peoples. It was Ra, the sun god, for the Egyptians who used green palm rushes to fill their homes. This symbolized life’s triumph over death. Saturn was the Romans’ god of agriculture; they celebrated Saturnalia with the knowledge that orchards and farms would soon enough be green and thriving again. Evergreen boughs decorated their homes and temples. The Druids, priests of the Celts, also used evergreen boughs. For them, these boughs symbolized everlasting life. The Vikings of Scandinavia had the sun god, Balder. They believed evergreens were his special plants and used them to decorate accordingly.
The presence of the modern tree may well be based on a tree that appeared in medieval mystery plays. This was the tree of paradise, a setting for a play given on December 24th. Various countries celebrated the commemoration and naming of Adam and Eve on this day. These plays featured a tree adorned with apples that represented the Garden of Eden’s forbidden fruit; the apples were later replaced by such round objects as shiny red-colored balls. Wafers also bedecked the tree to represent redemption with the Eucharist. Just as the cradle of Christ became a symbol in people’s homes, the Paradise tree found its way in homes as well.
A Mixing of Traditions
Evergreen boughs symbolized eternal life for ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, and Chinese. Worship of trees was frequently practiced by pagan Europeans. The use of evergreens at the end of the year survived the conversion of Scandinavians to Christianity, for example. The home would be decorated at the New Year to frighten away the devil. A tree would be set up for wild birds during the Christmas season. Today’s evergreen wreaths are not that dissimilar to the evergreen wreaths of Roman Saturnalia.
German Roots of Modern Christmas Trees
The first recorded decorated tree indoors was in 1605, in Strasbourg in Alsace. This is just over Germany’s southwestern border, part of Rhineland then, now present-day France. Strasbourg is also thought to be the home of the oldest market for trees sold for decorations. This first tree was decorated with apples, roses, wafers, and sweets. Demand became so high for Christmas trees that Strasbourg passed laws in the 15th century to crack down on those cutting pine branches. Each household could have only one tree in the 1530s.
After the time of the Protestant Reformation, decorated trees could be seen in the homes of upper-class families of Protestant beliefs to counter the Christmas cribs of the Catholics. By the early part of the 18th century, upper Rhineland had turned the custom into a common practice. Wax candles appeared on the trees in the later 18th century. One explanation for the appearance of the candles was that Martin Luther, upon seeing the beauty of stars gleaming among the tops of pine trees, wanted to recreate the image for his loved ones. Regardless, wax candles were expensive, and so the practice took time to take hold.
Christmas trees became popular among the nobility of Europe in the beginning of the 19th century. Royal courts as far distant as Russia picked up the practice. In 1816, a princess brought the custom to Vienna; it thereafter spread across Austria. The decorated evergreen tree arrived in France in 1840 by way of the duchess d’Orléans. In 1844, the Danish writer renowned for children’s tales, Hans Christian Andersen, published a story of a fir tree whose fate was to be a Christmas tree. The popular Queen Victoria of Britain made the practice more widespread.
Christmas trees had a rocky start in the North American colonies. German settlers had them in Pennsylvania as early as the year 1747, but as late as the mid-1840s, the trees were still seen as symbols of paganism by most Americans. Such settlers refused to accept them. In 1781, Hessian soldiers who were stationed in Quebec celebrated with a Christmas tree bedecked with fruits and candles. Still, given the New England Puritans’ beliefs, it was a long time before carols, expressions of joy, and decorated trees became an integral part of the American Christmas.
Puritans and Pagans
The New England Puritans held Christmas to be a sacred, reverent time. Exuberance was frowned upon. Oliver Cromwell preached against such heathen traditions, saying the decorated tree desecrated the sacred event. Such future traditions had to fight against laws like those found in Massachusetts, which in 1659 enacted that any December 25th observance beyond a church service a penal offense. Those who put up decorations were fined. This continued in its solemnity through the 19th century, when an influx of Irish and German immigrants undermined such legacies.
Not only did the British queen help to spread the popularity of the Christmas tree through the British Isles; with her following, she spread it through North America as well. Fashion-conscious members of society on the American East Coast were eager to follow the trend. In 1846 the Illustrated London News showed a sketch of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children surrounding a Christmas tree. With this, that piece of decoration had officially arrived. When the German husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, established a tree at Windsor Castle, the tradition spread throughout England, the U.S., and Canada.
Matters of Size and Fashion
By the time the 1890s came about, ornaments for Christmas trees were arriving from Germany to the ever-more popular trees of the United States. Europeans were noted for their smaller trees. Standing roughly four feet tall, some of these trees were placed on tables while others stood on the floor. The trees of the Americans tended to reach to the ceiling from the floor. Early 20th century Americans decorated with homemade ornaments, while German-Americans continued with apples, marzipan cookies, and nuts. Popcorn joined the display after being dyed colorfully and laced with berries.
Coming to Light
Electricity brought the advent of Christmas lights. Now the evergreens could glow for weeks without as much fear of fire. Trees also appeared in town squares country-wide. Having one in the home, far from its roots of being considered anathema to the holiday, became a Christmas tradition in America.
The journey from the Egyptians’ fronds to the fir tree of today was a long one that meandered over the map in fits and starts. There were a few times when the practice could easily have died out. Instead, it has taken root. After Thanksgiving in the U.S., and as early as the day after Halloween in Canada, Christmas trees both fake and real appear at stores. Ornaments of every type, shape, and shade await perusal year-round at some special Christmas stores. Lights for indoor and outdoor trees abound. The Christmas tree appears to be here to stay.