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Christmas Tree, the Evergreen Symbol of the Holiday Season

Updated on November 15, 2017
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Folklorist and a story teller who loves to explore myths from all corners of the world.

Pagan roots of the Christmas tree

Throughout history people in the northern hemisphere celebrated Winter solstice between December 21st and 22nd. They decorated their homes, particularly doors and windows with ever-green tree branches to please their gods. In many cultures it was believed that sun itself was a good who got weak and sick during the long winter and returned in the spring more stronger each day. Winter solstice was believed to be time when sun returned to it´s strength. Evergreen plants served as a reminder that soon sun would return and all life would flourish again.

One of the earliest records about winter solstice celebration comes from ancient Egypt where people worshiped sun god Ra, who had a head of a hawk and sun as his crown. During winter solstice when Ra would recover from his illness ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with palm rushes which for them symbolized life defeating death.

Roman Saturnalia

Saturnalia was one of the biggest festival celebrated in ancient Rome between 17th and 25th of December. Saturnalia was celebrated to honor Saturn the god of agriculture. To honor the god and the fact that soon farms and fields would be green and fruitful they decorated their homes with green branches. During Saturnalia no one could be prosecuted for breaking the law, killing, raping or injuring others. Lot of people took advantage of this time of lawlessness but Saturnalia was also time to remember others by giving them small gifts.

In the early days of Christian church, birth of Jesus was set to be the last day of Saturnalia. This was an attempt created by the early Roman Christians to convert pagans into Christianity. There are many suggestions made when Jesus was really born (they vary from Easter to Summer Solstice) majority of the modern day church history scholars and researchers agree that Jesus was not born near Winter Solstice and not even in December.

Winter Solstice

Among Germanic, Celtic and Slavic pagan cultures there was a habit to decorate homes with ever-green branches around winter solstice. Many times green branches were used as the symbol of the world-tree. World-tree is an early shamanic concept. Belief for that world was made of several different layers and those layers were hold together by the world tree. Number of layers varied between 3 to 17 depending on the belief system. In northern hemisphere branches from ever-green trees also symbolized rebirth of nature and everlasting life bringing hope for people about the coming spring.

In Germanic Yule celebration a conifer tree was most popular because the trunk was used for making the Yule log. Spruce trees especially were also connected to several highly respected forest deities and spirits. Pine cones and sprigs were used to decorate homes.

Around the area of Baltic sea people widely worshiped trees. In Finland people had custom to bring sacrificial gifts under the spirit tree during winter solstice.

Christmas tree and reformation

Catholic church did not approve pagan custom to bring tree branches inside. Protestant church approved the custom and tree branches were seen as symbol of wealth. When in Catholic traditions native scenes were the official symbols of Christmas, Christmas tree became the official holiday symbol for the protestants. According to Christian mythology an angel appeared to the shepherds and told about the birth of Jesus. This is why in Christian tradition there is either angel or a star in the top of the Christmas tree. Sometimes Christmas tree is told to symbolize the tree of paradise and Christmas balls represent forbidden fruits.

In 16th century Christmas trees received more and more popularity and even the most puritan clergymen had to face that fact that the custom was here to stay. According to the legend German priest Martin Luther who became the founder of Lutheran church was on his way home to Wittenberg one winter night and he saw a beautiful spruce tree and a star shining bright above it. He was so touched by what he saw that he took one of the trees inside his home and put candles to the tree branches. Story was spread across his congregation and later on after reformation soon all protestant countries in Central Europe had their own Christmas tree tradition. Tradition spread into United States in 18th century together with German soldiers.

Christmas tree tradition arrived to Scandinavian countries in 19th century. First mention of a Christmas tree in Finland is from 1829. A baron from Helsinki bought eight Christmas trees to decorate his home with. First people who adopted the Christmas tree tradition were clergy men and noble men. It was not until the 20th century when Christmas tree tradition spread to all Finnish homes.

Decorating The Christmas Trees

Decorating Christmas trees started in Middle Ages. Baltic countries Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (together with Scandinavian countries) were last countries in Europe that were converted into Christianity. In Baltic countries merchants traditionally decorated tree branches for the winter solstice celebration. In 16th century in Germany and in Switzerland the handcraft-er guilds decorated twigs with sweets and they were given as gifts for other guilds. Early Christmas tree decorations were all eatable like apples, nuts and sweets. Now days majority of the Christmas ornaments are made of plastic and the topics vary great deal. Most common ones are different kinds of Christmas balls, stars, angels and elves.

Before Christmas trees became official symbol of Christmas it was a custom that was only available for the richest families. Some people might even had more than one tree. Many times Christmas tree was an exotic decoration. Sometimes people even had competitions with their neighbors on who´s tree was the most handsome. Wealthy families might even had Christmas tree in every room. Tiny trees were placed on shelf's or hanged into the ceiling. Big tree was placed into the living room and it was also a status symbol. More handsome tree the wealthier owner. When custom spread into the homes of the Middle class their trees were usually small and placed into the middle of the table. When demand for the Christmas trees grew the size of the trees grew as well.

Christmas trees did not please all people. There was political and religious groups who banned Christmas trees and were convinced that they were an attempt to destroy people´s moralities. Trees were not always considered safe. Some of the arguments were accurate such as decorating trees with actual candles which might lead into fires. Electric lights became more popular in Christmas trees in 19th century. World´s first Christmas tree with electric lights was on display in New York in 1882.

Real Tree Or Plastic Tree

There are special Christmas tree farms where quality Christmas trees are being grown. If you happen to own some forest you can easily get tree from your own land. We are living times of environmental awareness and more families have Christmas tree made of plastic that can be used year after year. Unfortunately plastic Christmas tree does not have the scent of an actual spruce tree. One great tip to get that real scent is to ask Christmas tree seller if you could take some of the branches with you and they usually give branches away for free. Last year I placed bunch of branches into a bucket filled with water and decorated them with Christmas lights and red and golden balls. After holidays you can burn branches or you can throw them into bio-recycling.

Christmas tree decorations vary in different cultures. In many English speaking countries people like flashing colorful lights. I try to spent all my Christmas holidays in Finland with my family. There December-January is the darkest time of the year maybe that explains why in Scandinavian countries people prefer bright lights over colored ones.

For people living in the cities Christmas tree can be a symbol of the forest and remind from the nature connection. Christmas tree has both pagan and Christian origins. Then again Christmas as a holiday is a mixture of different customs and beliefs. I come from very non-religious family and for us Christmas mostly means good food and hanging out with friends and family. Our Christmas tree is filled with Disney and Moomin ornaments and decorations bought around Europe. Christmas tree can tell a lot about the personalities of those who decorate it.

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