During the winter holiday season, Christmas trees are just about everywhere you look. Many families set up a tree in their homes, they decorate many shops, malls and office buildings, and giant trees are often set up in town squares and parks.
Despite their familiarity, Christmas trees have a history which is long and unknown to many. These cherished symbols of Christmas actually trace their origins far back through history, long before the birth of Christ. Here, we’ll take a look at how the Christmas tree began as well as how it’s evolved along the way.
Long before Christianity, Celtics, Egyptians and even ancient Romans held festivals at the end of December. These festivals varied, but their main purpose was the same – to mark the end of winter and celebrate the coming spring.
December 21st is still recognized as the winter solstice. This day is the very shortest of the year, and the next day, December 22nd, marks the beginning of longer, brighter, warmer days. In ancient times this date was crucially important. Winters were just as cold back then as they are now, and surviving the winter was something to be celebrated!
Different cultures held different festivals, but one theme was central to them all – the evergreen. These seemingly magical trees didn’t shed their leaves in the fall, but stayed bright green, alive and flourishing all year long. This strong display of life in the face of winter’s chilly, bleak landscape became a symbol of new life, hope and perseverance. The particular types of evergreens used varied, depending on where each culture was located. In eastern Europe, the same pines and firs we see today were commonplace. Egyptians often brought a palm frond indoors during the winter solstice, and the Romans, along with other European cultures, prized mistletoe to decorate their homes and use in their ceremonies.
Although the exact dates are matters still debated, the first documented use of an evergreen tree marking Christmas is sometime during the 1500’s and most likely took place in Germany.
There is no precise start-stop date marking when Christmas trees became symbols of Christmas. Many credit the very first literal Christmas tree to St. Boniface way back in the 7th century. St. Boniface is said to have used the triangular shape of a pine tree to demonstrate the Holy Trinity. During the 1500’s, they began showing up in ceremonies and festivals celebrating the birth of Christ, while at the same time they were being used in other cultures to mark the winter solstice.
This merging came about as an attempt to create peace between Christians and pagans, two groups who often fought bitterly. While both groups were celebrating very different occurrences, they were celebrating them at the very same time. Using the same symbol, it was believed, would give people some common ground and, hopefully, prevent battles.
Birth of the Christmas Tree
During the 1500’s, a church in Germany recorded the use of an evergreen tree as part of their Christmas celebration. Although this may be the first recorded Christmas tree, logic tells us that they were most likely popular long before their use was written down. Early Christmas trees were not worshiped, as some ancient trees were, but served as a decorative symbol of new and everlasting life through Jesus.
During the 1700’s, Christmas trees spread through Germany and neighboring countries. In the 1800’s, the Roman Catholic Church took interest in the activity, which quickly spread it throughout Europe. Sometime during the late 1700’s, North America hosted its first Christmas tree as immigrants brought their traditions to the New World.
The earliest Christmas trees were decorated, just as we do today, although the decorations were of the edible variety. Candied fruits and nuts were hung from branches, and children ate these tasty treats as part of their Christmas Day celebration.
Throughout the years, the Christmas tree has remained remarkably true to its origins. Although fire is a concern, many trees are still decorated with tiny candles just like in the 1800’s. Electric lights are just as common, both for their versatility and relative safety.
Christmas trees are such a beloved symbol; several cities in the United States are in a friendly ‘battle’ over who had the first one! Although several cities adamantly claim to have hosted the first Christmas tree, nobody really knows for sure.
Today’s modern Christmas trees come in virtually every color, style and variation imaginable. There are real and artificial trees, purchased at tree lots, retail stores and harvested the old-fashioned way at ‘cut your own tree’ farms. We decorate with lights, ornaments, elaborate angels and stars for the top of the tree, and even cover the base with brightly coloured, shimmering tree skirts. Presents are traditionally placed under the tree on Christmas Eve, to be opened the following day.
However you look at it, the Christmas tree is a beautiful and long-standing tradition. The history behind this eternal symbol is almost as colourful as today’s bright, sparkling decorations! Did you see my Christmas Tree finger painting project?