The Story of the Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree with its green foliage has its origins in very ancient beliefs in magic, during the winter solstice, when all nature seemed dead, evergreen branches were thought to ensure the return of vegetation and new life. According to Norse mythology, evergreen trees represented the World Tree, whose branches and roots joined together heaven, earth and hell.
In many cultures, trees figure represent symbols of enduring and renewed life, since the colour green is a universal emblem of immortality. For instance, the Egyptian used palm branches with 12 shoots as sacred expressions of the completion of the year. Palm branches were also carried during their funeral processions as symbols of life after death.
The Romans decorated their homes, temples and statues with foliage during the December festival of Saturnalia. This was a season of great goodwill towards all, schools were closed and no battles could be fought. Punishment could not be inflicted on any criminal and distinctions of rank and class were put aside.
The Jews also had a celebration that fell during this time- the Feast of Lights. For eight consecutive days an eight-branched candlestick would be lit in every Jewish home.
The early Christians realised it would be impossible to abolish all the old traditions and so wisely retained the green tree and the burning lights-but gave them a new interpretation.
In justification, they quoted the prophet Isaiah who has spoken of the ‘righteous branch’ and foreseen the day when ‘the glory of Lebanon shall come unto you: the fir tree, the pine tree and box tree, to beautify the place of My sanctuary.’
How the first modern Christmas tree came into being is related to numerous legends.
- Scandinavian story tells of the violent deaths of two lovers and a consequent occult: a beautiful tree grow out of the blood-soaked soil at the spot where the murder took place. Flaming lights miraculously appeared on it at Christmas time every year, and nothing could put them out.
For Germans, the tradition of the Christmas tree began with an incident that is said to have occurred when St Boniface arrived from England in AD 718 to convert the pagans.
He was determined to root out all that was heathen and to this end, he cut down a sacred oak in the city of Geismar. To pacify the angry worshippers he planted a fir tree in its stead and declared this to be the symbol of their new faith. It so happened that this event took place on Christmas Eve.
Martin Luther the father of the German Reformation has also been credited with the introduction of the modern Christmas tree.
Returning home on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1517, he was deeply moved by the beauty of the glittering stars overhead.
Wishing to describe this inspiring spectacle to his wife and children, he dug up a small fir tree and put it into the nursery.
He then lit up its branches with candles, just as the starlit trees outside had appeared to him that cold winter night.
It took long time for the tree to become part of Christmas celebrations in English speaking countries.
- The first Christmas tree recorded in the USA was put up by Hessian soldiers in 1176. They were mercenaries hired from Prussia (now Germany) by King George III of England to fight in the Revolutionary War.
- The first English Christmas tree appeared at a children’s party held at Queen Caroline’s Court in 1821. German merchants based in Manchester had just introduced trees to the region, thus starting the trend.
The popularity of the Christmas tree throughout the UK is due almost entirely to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born husband. He has a Christmas tree placed in Windsor Castle in nostalgic remembrance of his homeland.
This royal example was soon copied by the general public and the custom then spread throughout the world.