The Christmas tree is probably the most universally recognized symbol of Christmas. Almost any practicing, or even non-practicing Christian puts up a Christmas tree each year. Trimming the tree is one of the most beloved Christmas traditions. But where does this tradition come from? Why do we stick a dead and often crispy evergreen tree in our front living room, and then proceed to cover it in random items and lights? It’s rather strange if you think about it,but if you learn the history of the Christmas tree you will learn where this beloved tradition came from.
The Christmas tree is believed to have originated in pre-Christian pagan cultures. These peoples believed that evergreen trees were magical. Even in winter, when all the other plant life was brown and bare, the evergreen stayed strong and green. It was seen as a symbol of life and the return of spring. In ancient Rome, people decorated their homes and temples with greenery during a special December feast. During this time no battles would be fought and people joined together for festivities and gifts.
Some relatively conservative Christians have pointed out that the Bible condemns the use of a tree for religious purposes (putting Christians on the same level with pagan tree worshippers). The Book of Jeremiah 10:3-4 says “For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan people deck it with silver and gold they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.” However, moderate Christians point out that the Bible’s condemnation of trees is reserved for those who actually worship the trees. And as it is not typical for Christians to worship Christmas trees; the majority of Christians have no problem with Christmas trees.
Although Christmas trees are believed to be traced from pagan traditions, they can more recently be traced to early Germany. Some say that St. Boniface, who converted the Germanic people to Christianity, came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. In his anger, St. Boniface supposedly cut the oak tree down at the roots. Then, to his surprise, a young fir tree sprung up from the roots of the oak tree. The saint took this as a sign of the Christian faith. However, it wasn’t until the 16th century that fir trees made it indoors as a celebration of Christmas.
The Bremen Guild Chronicle of 1570 reports that a small fir tree was decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels, and paper flowers. Then the tree was stood up in the house to the delight of the children, who collected the decor from the tree on Christmas day. Another reference suggests that a tailor’s apprentice carried a tree decorated with apples and cheese all around town to celebrate Christmas. Other legends say that Martin Luther decorated a small tree in his house to symbolize the ways the stars shined at night.
Regardless of exactly when and how this tradition originally came to be, by the early 18th century, the custom of bringing an evergreen tree indoors for Christmas had become a custom in the urban areas of Germany. As it was viewed largely as a Protestant custom, it did not rapidly spread to the Catholics in the area. But by the mid 1800s, most of Germany had adapted this tradition. The Christmas tree appeared in England when Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert. This custom was then spread to the United States from English and German immigrants. Since then, the Christmas tree has spread throughout the world.