The Christmas tree is a beloved entity of our Yuletide decorations. Just how did we arrive at the tradition of having a tree in a prominent place in our home, adorned with decorations, glittering with lights, and underneath wrapped gifts galore for members of the household and others?
We can thank, first, our German ancestors for the Christmas tree custom. Then we will have to give our English forbears credit, too, for they borrowed the tradition from the Germans and added to it. These early immigrants to America celebrated Christmas with a tree as in the old country.
But we find that some of the meanings behind the Christmas tree are older, even, than our German and English practices. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews—long before the advent of Christmas—used the evergreen as a symbol of eternal life. Pagans in Europe, even in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon settlements, practiced tree worship. They used the branches of evergreen trees placed in strategic places in their barns and houses to ward off evil spirits. After their conversion to Christianity, they used their pagan customs of evergreen placement as part of their Christian observances.
The first date attached to a Christmas tree is 1510 in Riga, Latvia, which is now northern Germany. Several men wearing black hats set up a large evergreen tree in the square at Yule time, the winter solstice, the shortest day in the year. Although it was to commemorate the birth of the Lord Christ, it also was a tribute to their sun god, Mithras, whom they had worshipped before learning about Christ and His birth. They decorated the giant tree with artificial flowers. After observing Yule, or Christmas, they then set the tree on fire, and the burning signified that from Yule Day, the days would gradually grow longer.
Martin Luther (1483-1546), the leader of the Reformation, was out walking one night near Christmas. He saw some fir trees with the starlight reflected through their branches. It was a beautiful sight and reminded him of Christ and eternal life. He wanted to teach his children what he had experienced at seeing the tree, but words failed him. He went back to the trees, cut one and took it into his house. He placed candles on the branches. He taught lessons about Christ’s birth and His offer of eternal life through salvation, represented by the evergreen of the branches. Candles represented Christ as the Light of the World, and taught that Christians should go forth as shining lights in a dark world. Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, on June 13, 1525. Six children were born to them, four of whom lived to become adults. Perhaps the Christmas tree in Luther’s house was in the mid to late 1530s. Luther died in 1546 of a massive heart attack.
Another legend of the Christmas tree predates the one in Riga, Latvia and the Martin Luther family tree. Winifred of England, who was later called St. Boniface (c672-754), went as a missionary to the Druids of Germany in the eighth century. About the year 723, he came upon a group of Druids preparing to sacrifice their young Prince Asulf to the god Thor under an oak tree. He stopped them. When he began to cut down the “bloody tree,” to the Druids a sacred oak, a strong wind came and blew down the tree. In its place a green fir tree sprang up. Because Boniface was not killed in the act of intentionally cutting their sacred tree, the Druids listened to him and embraced Christianity. Boniface taught the Druids that the fir was a tree of peace and its green represented eternal life. From then forward the fir trees had a special designation as the tree of Christ the Lord.
Queen Victoria of England and her husband, German Prince Albert, were pictured standing around their decorated Christmas tree in 1846 with their children. With a popular queen embracing the custom of having a Christmas tree, many Englishers followed suit and began the annual practice of decorating a tree in their own homes.
In America, the Pennsylvania German settlements had community Christmas trees and celebrations as early as 1747. Decorations were of the “home made” variety. White homemade wafers were baked to represent the bread of the sacrament. Berries, flowers and homemade garlands added to the decorations. Before electric lights, candles were placed in fireproof holders to prevent conflagration. Seeing the tree as a beautiful part of Christmas, many settlers, regardless of the country of their origin, placed Christmas trees in their homes and in churches as our nation expanded. Now, beautiful Chrismon trees with decorations representative of biblical truths are often seen in churches.
As you decorate and enjoy your tree this Christmas, know that you join in a long tradition of customs that seek to bring meaning and joy to the season. And I hope you will call it Christmas tree—not holiday tree.
c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 3, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.