Archive for December 25th, 2008

Oh Christmas Tree!

December 25, 2008

christmas-2008If you have a Christmas Tree, you might be wondering where it came from.  Well, not the tree itself (though come to think of it, I’m not at all sure where ours came from other than a store on the highway, but it’s big and fabulous and hasn’t dropped too many needles.) but the custom of bringing a tree into the house and decorating it.

My research first led to the story that the Christmas tree dated back to a 7th century monk who used the triangular shape of the tree to represent the Holy Trinity.   This story is false, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has actually looked at an evergreen and realized that they are in fact three-dimensional and not flat triangles (and it’s hard to see how a cone could represent a trinity, although that does lead to interesting speculation about just what it would represent).


According to, the Christmas tree actually has a much longer tradition, dating all the way back to the Roman Winter Solstice holiday of Saturnalia.  Saturnalia sounds a bit like baccanalia, and indeed both involved enjoying food and drink.  There were plenty of other feasts at this same time, including Juvenalia (honoring children) and the December 25 birthday of the infant god Mithra, which was viewed by some devout Romans as the most sacred day of the year.  During this season of celebrations, the Romans would bring in evergreen boughs to represent that the days were starting to get longer.

balder_the_good_by_jacques_reich1But the Romans weren’t the only ones who used evergreens in this way.  Egyptians and Druids also decorated with evergreens, and the Vikings thought this was the special plant of their Sun God Balder [no relation to the word balderdash].

But still, bringing in tree branches is a little different than bringing in the entire tree.  Although this site says that in the middle ages  Paradise Trees (evergreens decorated with apples) were used to celebrate/symbolize the Feast of Adam and Even on December 24, it’s the Germans who were primarily responsible some 500 years ago for the modern Christmas tree.  The Germans are also the ones who decorated the trees, and Martin Luther apparently is the first person to put candles on the tree.   (I haven’t seen too many candle-lit trees in the United States, but my German roommate in grad school said that her family still put little candles all over the tree and and lit them on Christmas Eve.)

Folk in the Colonies were much more skeptical of this whole tree thing and its pagan origins.    Many Puritan folk viewed decorated trees, Christmas carols, and the like as a distraction from the sacred aspect of the day, and a 1659 Massachusetts Law made it illegal to decorate or do anything to celebrate Christmas other than go to church.  Bah, humbug!  But the Irish and particularly the Germans were still all rah rah in favor of really celebrating Christmas, and in the mid 1700s the  German folk in Pennsylvania still had community trees.  Of course, many of those were actually wooden pyramids decorated with branches, making artificial trees more traditional to the US than actual trees.


Creative Commons License by Everyspoon

However, the biggest influence on the acceptability of Christmas Trees in the United States was England’s Queen Victoria.  In 1846 she tacitly gave her approval to the tradition by being featured with her family in front of a big tree on the cover of the  Illustrated London News.


That made it The Thing to Do, and so the concerns about the Pagan Origins of the Christmas tree were put aside.   Ironically, it was about this time that the Germans started to get really concerned about conserving the fir forests, and encouraging people to use artificial trees.  Plastic wasn’t readily available, so the trees of those days used feathers, dyed for a more realistic look.  And from there, whether artificial or real, aluminum, wooden, or living, Christmas trees stuck with the mainstream Christmas celebrations of many countries.