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The History of Christmas Trees

Updated on December 12, 2013

One of the most popular and reminiscent images of Christmas is an evergreen Christmas tree fully adorned with colorful lights, extravagant ornaments, and tinsels. There are many stories and legends about the connection between the lasting message of Christ and the Christmas tree. However, in actuality, the tradition of decorating Christmas trees during the festive season was taken from the pre-existing pagan traditions and customs.

The Pagans and the Christmas tree

The pagans living in the northern hemisphere used to celebrate the winter solstice. It is the longest night and the shortest day of a year and typically falls on the 21st or 22nd of December. The pagans thought that this was the time of the year when the Sun god started recovering from the illness that had consumed him during the previous months and had brought about the cold wintery weather to the region and the land.

The pagans believed that such an occurrence had to be rejoiced and the subsequent festivities consisted of decorating evergreen trees such as spruce, pin, and fur, which were put over windows and doors. Unlike other greenery, these evergreen trees had overcome the harshness of winter and hence the pagans thought that they were capable of overcoming and warding off the attention of varied unwelcome elements like evil spirits, witches, etc. The pagans therefore honored the evergreen trees which are now Christmas trees. The second reason was the belief that the evergreen nature of these trees were symbolic of the fact that the crops and other plants will now come back to life along with the recovery of the Sun god, thereby providing relief and an easier existence for all.

The Christmas tree and the Goths, Romans, and others

The pagan philosophy was also followed by the Goths, Celts, Egyptians, and the Early Romans who lived in the olden times.

The Romans celebrated the event in the form of a grand festivity called Saturnalia. During this festival the entire city used to come out and pay their respects to Saturn, i.e. the god of agriculture, and also let their hair down to the fullest at the same time. All the temples and houses were adorned with evergreen trees during this festival.

The Egyptians used to worship the Sun god Ra and decorated the widely available Palm tree leaves in place of pines and other evergreens.

Christianity and the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree was adopted as a religious symbol from the above discussed customary practices of the pagans. From being a symbol of everlasting life, the Christmas tree now symbolizes trinity.

It may however be noted that the custom of decorating Christmas trees is believed to have been started by Martin Luther, a protestant reformer priest, in the 16th century. Legend has it that he was mesmerized by the sight of bright stars shining through the evergreen trees during one of his nightly walks and thought that this wondrous sight should be shared with family and friends.So, he cut down a tree, brought it indoors, and tried to recreate the magnificent sight by attaching candle holders with lighted candles on the tree branches. This is considered as the beginning of the tradition of keeping a decorated Christmas tree indoors.

Many years later, the protestant follows of Luther brought the custom of decorating Christmas trees to America when they migrated to Pennsylvania.

The tradition of decorating Christmas trees however did not straightaway gain acceptance in America. Purists believed that the Christmas tree and even singing carols were desecrating the holy event. The purists also got the General Court of Massachusetts to pass a law that made the celebration of Christmas a criminal offense.

However, with the arrival of increased populations from Europe into America (along with their ideas about how Christmas should be celebrated), the purists slowly eased off and the laws eventually ceased.

The Christmas tree gained prominence in England after the husband of Queen Victoria, German-born Prince Albert, got a Christmas tree for the family in 1846. Since the Royals followed the custom, the entire country quickly followed suit.

The later history of the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree rapidly became popular and the wealthy tried to outdo each other by lavishly decorating floor to ceiling Christmas trees. This gave rise to outdoor Christmas trees.

At first the Christmas trees were adorned with nuts, apples, berries, candies, and other homemade ornaments. Later, people started using beautiful custom made bells, crystal decorations, and twinkling lights after the invention of electricity.

The varied decorations that adorn a Christmas tree have attained a significant meaning to Christians. The crystal ball and apples symbolize the fruit of redemption, the bells are supposed to ring in the joys of life, the lights indicate the victory of good over evil, and the dove or star at the top represents the Holy Spirit. The Christmas tree is definitely here to stay.


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    • Deathblow profile image

      Andrew Crawley 4 years ago from Earth

      Wow, that's interesting.

    • A-Bomb profile image

      Autumn 4 years ago from Central New Jersey

      I'm a 7th grade teacher discussing Martin Luther in class today. I'm definitely going to mention this article to my kids. Thanks.