Hope AcademyThe history of the Christmas tree dates back to the ancient world and is not as straightforward as we might believe.

(Photo credit: Hope Christmas Trees)

Pre-Christian winter foliage

The practice of decorating one’s home with greenery during the winter was widespread in the ancient world near the Mediterranean and the lands that would become Europe.

At winter solstice, Egyptians used to bring green date palm leaves into the home to symbolise life over death.

Romans celebrated the shortest day of the year by honouring Saturnus, the god of agriculture. They decorated their homes with greenery. Those who displayed laurel leaves did so in honour of their emperor.

Much further north, Druids in ancient Britain used evergreen branches in their winter solstice rituals and placed the boughs over their doors to ward off evil spirits. They also regarded holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life.

Other ancient peoples in Europe cut down fir trees and planted them in boxes inside their homes during this time.

Christianity’s effect

Once Christianity began to spread, some early theologians told their followers to discontinue the practice of displaying greenery in mid-winter because it was a pagan practice.

In the 2nd century, Tertullian objected equally to displaying laurel leaves in honour of the Roman emperor:

Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.

Later, around 700, the missionary Boniface — later canonised — was spreading the Gospel message in what is now Germany, where the people worshipped Thor. In Geismar, Boniface chopped down the Oak of Thor where human sacrifices were made and worship took place. The stories differ as to what happened next. One says that a fir tree sprung up in its place, causing the missionary to think it was a providential sign that the evergreen should be a Christian symbol. Another version says that Boniface pointed the people to a fir tree which he said symbolised the Holy Trinity because of its triangular shape as well as the love and mercy of God.

Paradise trees

During the Middle Ages, Christmas Eve was the feast day of Adam and Eve.

Churches used to feature dramas as part of Christmas worship. The plays tied in biblical themes and linked the Creation story to the Nativity. Churches had as backdrops ‘paradise trees’, which were draped with fruit.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the plays were no longer performed in church but out in the open air. Not surprisingly, these outdoor performances soon turned into rowdy, drunken events.

When the Reformation took root in the 16th century, many places banned the plays from the public square and the trees from churches. People began to put up paradise trees in their homes instead. These displays were called paradises even when they were simple boughs.

People decorated their paradises with round pastry wafers to symbolise the Eucharist. This developed into the tradition of decorating trees with sweet biscuits and the near-universal use of round ornaments.

The Reformation

The use of Christmas trees was controversial from the time of the Reformation through to the mid-19th century.

Legend tells us that Martin Luther had one in his home, although Christianity Today says this has little basis in fact. My Lutheran readers are welcome to tell me more in the comments.

The story has it that, in 1500, Luther was walking through a wood on Christmas Eve. The snow shimmering on the boughs of the fir trees moved him to bring a small evergreen in to his home for his children. He decorated it with candles which he lit in honour of Christ’s birth.

The tradition of Christmas greenery continued and returned to church sanctuaries. In the 17th century, however, some Lutheran ministers made their dislike for it known. Johann von Dannhauer said these displays distracted from Jesus Christ, the true evergreen tree.

Trees displayed in church often had a wooden pyramid of candles standing next to them. The candles represented families or individuals who belonged to the church. Later these pyramids were placed on the tree itself. It sounds like quite a fire hazard, but this gave us the tradition of a tree with lights.

In the early United States, Dutch and German immigrants brought the Christmas tree tradition with them. Hessian troops who had helped to fight in the Revolution also made the festive trees popular.

That said, the Puritans in New England banned all Christmas celebrations and decorations. Schools and commerce ran as usual on December 25.

American displays of trees in churches sometimes courted controversy. In 1851, a minister in Cleveland, Ohio, had to defend placing a tree in his church. He nearly lost his job.

The 19th century

In England, the Georgian kings from the House of Hanover carried on their displays of Christmas trees. German immigrants to England did so, too. However, the public resented the German Monarchy and wanted nothing to do with such traditions.

It was only with the popularity of Queen Victoria that the Christmas tree tradition spread across the country. Her consort Prince Albert, of German descent, set up a grand tree at Windsor Castle for the family in 1841. At this time, presents were hung on the branches where possible.

Elsewhere, members of the European nobility popularised the tradition. In 1808, Countess Wilhelmine of Holsteinborg lit the first Christmas tree in Denmark. Although unaware of the Countess’s experience at that time, Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Fir Tree in 1844. Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg introduced the Christmas tree to Vienna in 1816. It wasn’t long before all Austrians had one. In France, the Duchesse d’Orléans had a tree in her home in 1840. The Russian royal family also had a Christmas tree.

In the United States, civic leaders were unhappy with the way that Christmas Day turned into revelry. Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, known today as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, and other similar works helped to change the nature of Christmas to a family-oriented celebration focussed on the home.

In 1851, a farmer in the Catskills (New York) named Mark Carr loaded two ox sledges with evergreen trees and took them to New York City. He sold every one of them.

20th century and later developments

By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree.

By 1920, nearly all American households had one.

A decade later, during the Depression, tree growers were unable to sell fir trees to companies for landscaping. There just wasn’t enough money for that type of thing. Nurserymen decided to convert their businesses into Christmas tree farms. They soon discovered that the public preferred cultivated trees for their symmetrical shape.

Today, Christmas trees are big business. Ordering them online requires purchasing in November to avoid disappointment. For those who prefer artificial ones, aerosol pine sprays give that unforgettable scent of Yuletide cheer.

Whatever we choose to display, it seems that displaying greenery is an atavistic part of winter celebrations and the anticipation of new life. For believers, that new life is the Infant Jesus.

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