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The Origins Of Christmas Trees And Their Decorations

Updated on November 14, 2012

Yule, Pagan Holidays And The Christmas Tree

Christmas trees are an old tradition in several countries. They make their appearance close to the day Christians celebrate as Christmas. In non-Christmas cultures, the tree is part of an overall, sometimes commercial recognition of this special season. In fact, this time of year, has been memorable among many different cultures throughout time.

For many, Yule, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, was the happiest time of the year signifying as it did that the wheel had turned; the Sun and longer days had arrived. The month during which this festival took place was Jol. From this, we derived the word Yule. Until around 956, Yule was celebrated on January 14, a Nordic Festival offering gifts to the Aesir. It was one of the few days people ate meat, the cattle being slaughtered on this day. The date became December 21 by the time of Haakon the Good. This was the old Christmas day and corresponded with the Winter Solstice. For the Romans, the period of Yule and Christmas falls into the now famous, and often misconstrued holiday of Saturnalia.

The Origins Of Christmas Greenery/Decorations

The use of evergreens for wreaths and other decorations arose in northern Europe. Italy, Spain, and some other nations use flowers instead. The Druids had a preference, at this time of year, for Holly, with its prickly leaves and red berries, and mistletoe. Ivy was also a traditional plant for the season. These plants are protection plants and some were associated with the Sun, rebirth, and the birth of the Mabon or Holy Child. A Holy Child is common among many religions.

Many ancient winter festivals celebrated the Gods and the return of the sun - or the change of the seasons. They used greenery, lights, and fires to symbolize life and warmth in the midst of cold and darkness. Today, we find this primal calling to warmth and its symbol, the sun, in the brilliantly decorated evergreen tree with its strings of multicolored lights and seasonal coloured balls of red, green and gold.

The Egyptians, Chinese, Celts and Hebrews used evergreens and wreaths as symbols of life (as well as immortality and death). In ancient Egypt, their “evergreen” - the date palm, replaced the traditional pine and fir. Egyptians brought these branches inside to represent the triumph of life over death. Ra and Horus are the Gods celebrated during this time. In ancient Rome, evergreens, hung in every home and apartment. Saturn was at the heart of this celebration. It was a time in which role reversal and gift giving were integral parts of the overall celebrations.

Tutelary trees and their association with the Gods are common among the Teutonic and Scandinavian peoples of northern Europe, where the Celts originated. They decorated houses and barns with evergreens at the New Year for protection, and often set up trees for the birds in winter. In England, the people wassailed the trees, particularly the apple trees, recognizing their worth, while asking the old Gods for a good crop next year.


Christmas and its decorations are not the result of a single tradition or culture. They derive from multiple ancient and modern sources. In fact, over the years, each family develops its own tradition, often combining those of their own parents, grandparents and great grandparents. The second part of this article will look at the origins of the first Christmas trees.


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Durie, William. “Tree and Plant Lore.” The Celtic Magazine. 11 (1886).

Fowler, W. The Roman Festivals in the Time of the Republic. (London, 1899).

Krythe, Maymie, R. All About Christmas (New York, 1954).

Matthews, J. The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. (Wheaton, Il., 1998)

Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (New York, [1912] 1978).

Muir, Frank Christmas Customs and Traditions (New York, 1975).

Slade, Paddy. Encyclopedia of White Magic. (New York, 1990).

Snyder, Phillip V. The Christmas Tree Book. (New York, 1976).


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    • epigramman profile image


      5 years ago

      Hi Bonnie and good morning from lake erie time ontario canada 9:48am where it starting snowing late yesterday afternoon and through the night and now I am stuck knee deep in all of this snow.

      Even the lake looks white today. How are things for you in Guelph today? Did you have a good holiday week so far?

      I really do admire your research here and it's always interesting to go back to the roots/the origins - thank you for educating me and enlightening me with a fascinating and absorbing read.

      Sending you warm wishes for your health, happiness and prosperity in the new year - I work in Hamilton and commute to the lake here


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