Origins of Christmas Trees
Join me in taking a deeper look to see if we can uncover the origins of the Christmas tree. Where did they come from and how did they become one of the most recognized shapes in the world and of course, a key part of our Christmas celebration?
Early Evergreens in Celebration
Evergreen trees have been used in Winter celebrations throughout the ages and the modern Christmas tree is the result of thousands of years of natural evolution. It’s known that early Pagans used green trees during the long cold winters, especially around the Solstice, in the hope they would bring about the onset of Spring after the ‘sickness’ of Winter. Pagans would sometimes hang spruce branches over their doors to ward off witches and evil spirits. The early Egyptians used green fronds or rushes to honor Ra, their sun god.
Interestingly, the Romans used to decorate their homes with green branches from evergreen trees during the festival of Saturnalia. The Saturnalia festival was in honor of the God of Saturn and was celebrated between Dec 17th and Dec 23rd each year. During this time, feasts were held and it was customary to spoil friends and family with gifts. Almost all businesses were closed and most people, including slaves, would have a short period to do whatever they wished in celebration. The festival was so important on the annual calendar that they could almost get away with anything over that period, the result was often chaos and lawlessness.
Vikings were also known to use green evergreen branches as they believed they were the plants of their god of light and peace, Balder.
Real Trees Used for Christmas
It stands to reason that the types of trees that have been used for thousands of years would have to be evergreen and easily accessible throughout Europe. This leaves limited options as most trees will lose their leaves in the harsh European winter climate. Hardy and long-lasting evergreens like fir, pines and spruces are common in many parts of the world, not just Europe, and offer a pleasant aroma and appearance.
When it comes to Christmas specifically, there are some references to other types of trees and plants that were brought indoors on the chance they might flower over the Christmas period; hawthorn plants would be one example. Although not strictly a tree in the same sense, some would create a representation of a Christmas tree using wood or other materials.
The Paradise Tree
In the middle ages, the most popular form of entertainment was to watch a play in the town square or hall and many of these were focused on the stories of Adam and Eve. The Garden of Eden was often represented by a tree laden with fruit known as the paradise tree. The church eventually banned this practice which led to people setting up their ‘paradise trees’ at home in secret! Sometimes both a paradise tree and a wooden decorative tree would be found together with a candle attached to the wooden tree.
Early Christmas Trees
There is some debate between Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia as to who was the first to use a tree for Christmas and New Year celebrations around the year 1500. It is said that the ‘Brotherhood of Blackheads’ put up the trees (in both countries) with the Brotherhood being made up of local merchants and ship owners. Trees were set up in the town square and set on fire at the height of the celebration.
Did the Christmas Tree Originate in Germany?
Many clues point to Germany as being the actual origin of the modern-day Christmas tree somewhere back in the Middle Ages (1450 -1500). Trees back then were decorated with fruit or flowers such as apples, roses, and different types of sweets. This does seem plausible considering modern-day decorations still stay on that theme and include baubles, lights, and of course, sweets! As people started to adopt the idea of a tree to celebrate Christmas newer laws had to be brought in to stop people from cutting off branches and even taking away whole trees. In the 18th century, it was common for people in Germany to put up a tree at Christmas and many began to illuminate their trees with wax candles.
Ornaments found on Christmas trees called baubles originated in Germany and can be traced back to the late 1500s. Germany improved on the design much later in the 1800s when a scientist discovered a way to coat the surface of the bauble in silver nitrate to make them shiny, this also enabled artists to add intricate shapes and designs.
It’s likely the Germans played a large part in spreading the idea of an illuminated tree to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
Early Christmas Trees in the UK
The popularity of the modern tree in the UK can be traced back to Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. The royal couple were admired on a global scale and were trendsetters of their time.
When the London news posted a picture of the royal family with their decorated Christmas tree it captured the hearts and minds of people across the nation and indeed, the world. It wasn’t too many years later that people across the UK adopted the idea of celebrating Christmas with their own tree decorated with candles, sweets, flowers and others.
Some say that it was in fact King George III, through his marriage to the German princess Charlotte, who started the tradition in Buckingham palace.
Christmas Trees in America
Christmas trees didn’t quite take off in the USA as they did in the UK and that was because although they followed to some degree, the influence of the Royal family wasn’t as prominent stateside. This was despite many European settlers carrying the tradition across and celebrating with their American friends.
The first Christmas tree rumored to have been in the White House was during the term of President Franklin Pierce somewhere around the year 1850, however, the National Ceremony lighting the Christmas Tree on the White House lawn was in the 1920s by president Coolidge.
Early on Americans were slow to adopt the practice of using a tree at Christmas but early in the 19th century more and more began to use them along with homemade decorations. Ultimately, as the availability of power networks spurned the advent of electrical Christmas lights and it become normal for almost every family in the US to have their very own tree to celebrate!
The Christmas tree has come a long way from its Pagan origins having survived and evolved through the ages into almost every Western home. It’s thought almost 35-40 million Christmas trees are sold in the USA each year and 8 million in the UK. The majority of artificial trees are shipped from China with official figures unknown.
The magic of Christmas would never be matched without the colorfully decorated Christmas tree which has become the universal symbol of our celebration.