Christmas is undoubtedly the most wonderful time of the year for many of us. Nobody can remain indifferent to the spirit of the holidays, the Christmas decorations and lights all around town, and buying presents for their loved ones (it is not always gingerbread rainbows and Christmas unicorns, though, as the latter might cause a lot of stress and anxiety, especially if shopping in the middle of December).
However, one of the most important symbols of this holiday for many years has been the Christmas tree. It is a universal symbol of this winter holiday, common for many countries, no matter the religion they profess.
How did it happen that the Christmas tree became so popular around the globe? And where did it all start?
Let’s dig a little bit into the history of the Christmas tree.
The tradition of Christmas trees, and thus Christmas tree history, takes its roots from long before Christianity was introduced and is closely connected with the celebration of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, which usually takes place on the 21st of December. It was believed that after this day, which is the shortest of the year, the sun god which was getting weaker and weaker would be reborn. To celebrate that, and as a reminder that after a long winter the summer will come again, people decorated their houses with evergreen plants. It was also common to think that those plants will protect the house from evil spirits and misfortune.
It is worth mentioning ancient Egypt, where worshipping to the god of the sun Ra was especially vigorous. Celebrating the rebirth of the god of the sun during the winter solstice, Egyptians used green palm trees for decoration.
However, even though it was common for many pagan religions, there are two festivals that might have had the biggest influence on the modern Christmas and its traditions, including the Christmas tree. Those are Saturnalias in the Roman empire and Yule which was celebrated by Germanic people; in both of those celebrations appears the custom of using evergreen plants which bears similarities to the Christmas tree as we know it.
Saturnalias occurred every year on the 17th of December and lasted for a week, celebrating Saturn, the god of agriculture, wealth, and rebirth. In his honor, the Romans would throw lavish feasts, exchange gifts, and, of course, decorate temples and homes with greenery.
Yule, which was celebrated in the North by Vikings and Celts during the solstice, also brought a valuable contribution to the development of Christmas traditions. Celts would collect mistletoe from the trees as a symbol of health and fertility, and Vikings would burn a Yule log from an oak tree, sometimes decorated with ribbons and greenery.
Medieval Times (Germany)
Similarities in celebrating the period close to the winter solstice could be observed in many different ancient religions and nations. However, it all was put together and also endured changes when Christianity was introduced.
There is a legend that the Christmas tree was popularized by Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism. One evening he was walking home and was struck with the beauty of the fir trees covered in snow, gleaming under the stars. Eager to share this moment with the family, he brought the fir tree home and decorated it with candles to recreate this picture.
The historians agree with the fact that the Christmas tree as we know it was first introduced in Germany in the 16th century. However, they have a different version of its formation. During medieval times, it was widely common to commemorate Adam and Eve as the ancestors of all people on the 24th of December, the day before Christmas. Devoted Christians staged plays about their life, usually putting upon the stage a “paradise tree” – a fir tree decorated with wafers and apples, which symbolized a forbidden fruit. Later the tradition developed and made its way to the homes of believers.
Many of them also put next to the tree a wooden pyramid with candles and evergreens. Later, those two symbols intertwined to become a Christmas tree as we know it.
Even though the Christmas pyramid is less popular than a few centuries ago, it can still be found as a decoration in many homes and Christmas markets. You can even buy one at any Weihnachtsmarkt – German Christmas market. By the way, Germany was also the first country to introduce Christmas markets to the world!
Popularity of the Christmas Tree in Europe
Despite the fact that the Christmas tree was becoming more popular in Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries, it was still a long haul for it to become an international symbol of the holidays. Even though it became an important tradition for the Protestants to put a fir tree in their homes to celebrate the birth of Christ, in other countries it was considered quirky at best. During the 18th century in America there were a lot of clashes between the settlers from different countries, as Germans brought from the homeland the tradition of celebrating Christmas with all the necessary attributes, including the Christmas tree. At the same time, New England puritans considered them a pagan symbol and a desecration of the holy event.
In Europe, it started to shift at the end of the 18th century. During those times there were popular royal intermarriages and German nobility would bring homeland traditions to the other countries. That might be one of the reasons the Christmas tree slowly spread over a few European countries.
One of the best examples could be a story of Queen Charlotte, who was the wife of King George III and the grandmother of Queen Victoria. She was born in Germany, and, after coming to England, started to decorate yew branches for every Christmas so her family could enjoy this tradition, too. In 1800, Queen Charlotte went even further and set up a whole Christmas tree decorated with candles, fruits, and toys in Windsor castle. That made a big impression and slowly the tradition started flourishing in society.
However, the biggest impact on the increased adoption of the Christmas tree as the symbol of winter holidays was from Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, who was also of German descent. Not many knew how Christmas holidays were celebrated in their palace until 1848, when the Illustrated London News published a picture of the royal couple with their children gathered up around the decorated Christmas tree. The illustration became a sensation in the English-speaking world, and for many countries, including America, it became a big push towards incorporating a Christmas tree into their annual celebrations.
Christmas Tree Nowadays
Times change, and right now the apples on the tree are usually replaced with red Christmas ball ornaments, instead of candles we tie around Christmas lights, every year we try to consider if it is worth it to buy an artificial tree or a real one, and which is more eco-friendly. Many towns compete on which Christmas tree will be the tallest and the most impressive making the whole celebration itself self-marketing. No matter how it changes, for many decades the Christmas tree has been a ubiquitous symbol of winter holidays for countless families in numerous countries and right now it is more popular than ever.