The Historical Origins of
the Christmas Tree

Compiled by Mary Stephens

The origins of the Christmas tree seem to be a debated subject.  There also seems to be a tendency toward extremes in claims.  As also seems to be usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.  On the "goody, goody" end of things we have those who would claim that the Christmas tree is a totally innocent tradition that was invented in a Christian context.  This must be quite laughable to anyone who has studied the old European cultures and religions at all.  On the other extreme I have run across some claims that are so bizarre and so deeply buried in the ancient past that I can't help being more than a little skeptical of their accuracy.  Due to their dubiousness and obscene nature I refuse to even discuss them here.

Since there are secular sources who do a good job of presenting the information which I wish to give you, I will primarily quote others.  Links are provided where available, but note that sometimes pages are taken down, moved or changed, so in some cases you may find the original page the information was taken from gone, or a link dead.

Ancient Heritage

Jeremiah 10:2-5 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

From
www.history.com
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
History of Christmas Trees

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.

Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes... History of Christmas Trees

From delongfarms.com
To fully appreciate the history of the Christmas tree, one must understand the mystical importance coniferous evergreens held for the pagan Norsemen who inhabited the frigid and often enchanting forests of Northern Germany...Pre-Christian Pagans inhabited a land that they believed they shared with numerous Gods, nature-spirits, and demons. A common example was the Norse worship of the Oak tree; its strong and long burning wood was a sign of the strength of the spirits that inhabited the Oak, and it was often used as a symbol of the Norse god chieftain, Odin.

When the seasons turned, however, and winter brought with it numerous evils and malicious spirits stalking the shadows of wintery forests, the Pagan peoples would turn to the aid and magic of any nature spirits that would help them. Plants and trees such as mistletoe, holly and evergreen, unlike the forementioned [sic] Oak tree, were believed to have some special power against the darker magics [sic] of winter because they were the only plants that stayed green throughout the year. During the winter, to shore their homes from malevolent winter spirits, Pagan Germanic peoples would hang wreaths and bushels of evergreens over their doors and windows, believing their spirit was enough to ward off winter evils. In many cases evergreen decor were brought indoors where their scent could freshen the dark, medieval homes of otherwise stagnant straw and thresh. The needles and cones would even be burned as a form of incense; its smoke and fragrance filling the home with the protective spirit-magic of the evergreen.

During the Winter Solstice, when winter was at its darkest and the days were the shortest of the year by the Germanic Lunar Calendar, Celtic and pagan civilizations throughout Northern Europe would celebrate and sacrifice to the Norse god, Jul (Though pronounced and contemporarily recognized as “Yule.”), and celebrate their Yule Tide festival. This is the tradition from which we have our Yule log, today. The Germanic practice, however, involved cutting down a massive hardwood log that was large enough to burn for twelve days of feasting and sacrifice, and served as a fertility symbol to both help with the coming of spring and prophesize its bounty. During the Winter Solstice, when winter had its strongest influence on the frozen landscape, Norse pagans would, by tradition, bring entire evergreen trees into their homes. These massive evergreens were called Yule trees, and it was believed that the spirits of the trees would inhabit their home and bless its inhabitants. This practice was as much Winter Solstice tradition as it was mystical protection from night-faring spirits during the darkest times of the year.   The History of the Christmas Tree [This is a well-researched account.]

Introduction Into Modern World and Christianity

From delongfarms.com
During the 8th Century, missionaries from the Holy Roman Catholic Church began to make their way North to what is now Germany and the Netherlands. One such missionary...was Boniface of Credition. Boniface, a stalwart and moral gentile [sic], was quickly set aback by the pagan rituals of polytheism, nature worship, and human sacrifice. While many Germanic peoples readily accepted the Catholic faith, there were still some hardened tribes that even proved violently hostile in their resistance to Catholic missionaries such as Boniface. It would be in a single legendary act that Saint Boniface of Credition seemed to symbolically set the tone for the Holy Roman Catholic Church: instead of usurping the pagan faith completely with Catholicism, Boniface chose to shift their focus and also adopted the more desirable pagan beliefs and customs himself.

It is said that when Saint Boniface came across a human sacrifice at the foot of the Oak of Thor in Geismar, Boniface cut down the oak in a symbolic act of removing the older barbaric Celtic traditions. Pointing to an evergreen that was growing at the roots of the fallen oak, Saint Boniface said, “This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and guide.” In much the same way that the Holy Roman Catholic Church assimilated many other pagan customs and traditions to help with the converting of the Northern Germanic peoples, Saint Boniface accommodated the pre-existing Celtic beliefs in the mysticism of evergreens and incorporated it to help with a smoother transition for pagan peoples over to Catholicism.

In many ways, this legend of Saint Boniface of Credition would have helped with the incorporation of the Yule trees and Yule Tide evergreens of the Germanic Winter Solstice into the Roman's “Christ's Mass” celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus. The converted Germans who were celebrating Christ's Mass would have celebrated in much the same way as they did the Winter Solstice, save for many of their central traditions being more gentile [sic]. The evergreen trees that they brought indoors were now symbols of the holy trinity; the stars at the top serving as a symbol of heaven and God. Apples were hung from the branches that would later become Christmas decorations, symbolizing the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden...  The History of the Christmas Tree

Decorating evergreen trees had always been a part of the German winter solstice tradition. The first "Christmas trees" explicitly decorated and named after the Christian holiday, appeared in Strasbourg, in Alsace in the beginning of the 17th century. After 1750, Christmas trees began showing up in other parts of Germany, and even more so after 1771, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Strasbourg and promptly included a Christmas tree is his novel, The Suffering of Young Werther. In the 1820s, the first German immigrants decorated Christmas trees in Pennsylvania. After Germany's Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, he introduced the Christmas tree tradition to England. In 1848, the first American newspaper carried a picture of a Christmas tree and the custom spread to nearly every home in just a few years.  Christmas Traditions Worldwide

 

Links:
(Disclaimer on some content and Bible versions other than the KJV.)

A short secular video on the origins of Christmas trees.

 

most graphics and background by mary stephens

Page created Nov. 2012