The curious history of the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree is one of the most iconic winter traditions of modern culture. It graces homes and office buildings all over the world and it has been accepted as a symbol of the holiday season by Christians, many other faiths as well as the secular community.

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Glade jul (Happy Yule) by Viggo Johansen (1891)

The Christmas tree has been a subject of controversy for Christians throughout history. While Christmas is a Christian holiday, the Christmas tree is obviously not part of the Bible’s nativity story. It was believed that the Christmas tree was derived from Pagan practices that existed side-by-side with Christianity in antiquity until the Middle Ages.

In reality, the history of the Christmas tree is much more convoluted, and blends of several traditions, including Pagan, German, Scandinavian, Roman, Christian and Victorian.

The English Puritans condemned Christmas as paganism and idolatry, and argued that the celebration was but a hijacking of a Roman festival by early Christians. Puritans rejected Christmas traditions such as the Yule log, holly and mistletoe, decorated trees, drinking alcohol and any joyful expression during the nativity.

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A 1659 public notice alerting congregants to the new holiday ordinance

Christmas celebrations were made illegal by the Puritan-dominated parliament in England in 1644, and subsequently also in New England; Christmas was banned in Boston from 1659-1681. The ban was lifted in England in 1660, when Charles II took the throne. In New England, Christmas was considered culturally taboo by Puritans until 1856, when it became a legal holiday.

Even before there were Christmas trees, before the birth of Christ, the Prophet Jeremiah condemned ancient Middle Eastern customs of cutting down trees, bringing them into the home, and carving and decorating them.

“Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen…. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” –Jeremiah 10: 2-4, King James Bible

Renaissance Germany and Paradise Trees

While Christian groups were concerned about ancient Pagan influences, Christmas is actually a relatively modern tradition. Many Christmas customs including the Christmas tree, gingerbread houses, glass ornaments, Christmas markets and nutcrackers originated in Renaissance Germany. Even our modern idea and visual representation of Santa Claus is predominantly German (although he is an amalgamation of many traditions).

In early 16th century Germany, “Paradise Trees”, which represented the “tree of knowledge” from the Garden of Eden, were erected in people’s homes during the annual Feast of Adam and Eve on December 24th . They were decorated with apples (sin) and wafers (redemption) to commemorate the name day of Adam and Eve, who were symbolically redeemed through Jesus Christ on this day.

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Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526

Legend has it that the German 16th century protestant reformer, Martin Luther, placed the first candles on an evergreen tree in his home. Walking home late through the woods one night, he was awestruck by the twinkling of the stars through the trees. Martin Luther cut down a fir tree, took it home and placed small candles on the branches so he and his wife could be reminded of the beauty of the Christmas sky.

In the 18th  century, upper class Germans would place the “Christmas Light” in their home, a small pyramid like frame that was decorated with glass balls and tinsel, with a candle on top. It symbolized the birth of Christ as Light of the World.

German immigrants first brought the modern Christmas tree to America in the 1700s. They only became popular with the general public in the US, England and Canada after 1848, when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at Windsor castle. They even decorated it themselves! Victoria was a trendsetter in her time and was instrumental in popularizing the Christmas tree.

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The Illustrated London News (1848) published a picture of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family around a Christmas tree topped with an angel

The winter solstice and the sun god

Although the modern Christmas tree is a relatively recent custom, Pagans certainly influenced some Christmas traditions. If there had never been ancient Pagan tree cults or winter solstice festivals, we may not celebrate our modern Christmas at the same time of year or the same way.

The winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the Northern hemisphere, and the sun is at it’s lowest point in the sky. There are several gods associated with the winter solstice celebration in many Pagan traditions, but the sun god was the main focus. The sun god was the weakest on the winter solstice and evergreens reminded Pagans of the green plants that would grow when the sun was strong again.

The December festivals that occurred between antiquity and the early middle ages share similar characteristics, such as the decoration of buildings with evergreens, the exchange of gifts or giving to children, gaiety and feasting, and fraternizing between rich and poor, servant and master.

At the solstice, even the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped the sun god, Ra, filled their homes at the solstice with green palm rushes, which symbolized the triumph of life over death. 

Saturnalia and the birthday of the Unconquered Sun

From December 17th to 23rd, Roman Pagans celebrated the winter festival, Saturnalia, in honour of the god of agriculture and harvest, Saturn. Saturnalia originated as a farmers’ festival but public Saturnalia banquets were held from as early as 217 BC, in the Roman Empire. Saturnalia continued until the 3rd-4th  centuries AD, just as the Roman empire fell under Christian rule.

Saturnalia led up to the celebration of the New Year and the renewal of light, on December 25th with the festival of the sun god, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). Roman Christians often took part in the festivities, and in response, the church resolved to celebrate the nativity on this day. Both Christ and the sun were to be born anew on December 25th , and the traditions influenced one another.

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Mosaic of Christ as Sol or Apollo-Helios in Mausoleum M in the pre-4th-century necropolis beneath St. Peter’s in the Vatican, which many interpret as representing Christ
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Roman disc in silver depicting Sol Invictus (from Pessinus in Phrygia, third century AD)

Roman Pagans believed that cutting down whole evergreen trees to decorate their homes and temples was too destructive to nature. They preferred to use branches of evergreen shrubs to make wreaths to decorate their homes and temples during their winter festivals. The evergreens typically symbolized eternal life, hope for the New Year and for the sun’s warmth to return. The Pagans would also decorate whole living trees outside – where they grew – with religious ornaments, such as moons, stars and suns.

The Yuletide Festival

Pagan Scandivians and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated Yule, also known as midwinter, to mark the winter solstice. The Yuletide festival began on December 25th and lasted 12 days to underline the reawakening of nature. The first usage of the word Yuletide was recorded in the year 900.

The Christmas wreath and Yule log are said to be direct descendants of Yule customs. The long-bearded God of Yule, Jolner or Odin, influenced the mythological figure of Santa Claus. Like Santa, Odin flew across the sky on a magic horse and left gifts during Yuletide under his sacred evergreen tree.

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Georg von Rosen, Oden som vandringsman, 1886.

For these Nordic peoples, evergreens, holly and mistletoe, were believed to have some special power over the darkness of winter. They also hung boughs on their doors and windows to ward off evil winter spirits. The cones and needles were burned indoors to freshen the air and protect against evil spirits.

They even brought in whole evergreen trees into their homes, as it was believed that tree spirits would inhabit the home and bless the inhabitants. Evergreens provided more of a protective function against dark winter spirits on the darkest night of the year on Yuletide.

A time for acceptance, unification and celebration

Most of our modern religious customs and festivals come from an amalgamation of many cultural traditions – some modern and others ancient in origin.

Our modern Christmas customs come from a melting pot of various European and Pagan religious traditions, that were repackaged in the renaissance and in Victorian times.

This has caused some controversy for certain religious groups, who have sought to divide people and cultures. They isolate themselves and their practices using self-righteous but mostly erroneous rationalizations, ostracizing other cultures and faiths who will nevertheless endure.

Christmas and the winter solstice is a time for unification, of brotherly love for fellow humans of all faiths, cultures and backgrounds, rich and poor. It is a time to celebrate and honour the most important moments in nature’s cycle as fellow humans on this fragile planet.

 

 

 

 

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