“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your branches green delight us!” Many people know the song and have a tree in their home every December, but few know the history behind this lively symbol of Christmas. Many scholars believe that this Christian tradition has roots in the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice.
Contemporary scholars disagree on when Christ was born – some say in the spring because shepherds were in the fields with their flocks. In the early years of Christianity, Jesus’ birth was not widely celebrated; Easter was and still regarded is the most important holiday to Christians. There are no records that suggest Christmas was celebrated in the first few centuries after Christ. It was not until the Roman Empire adopted Christianity that a winter birth for Christ was widely celebrated.
In order to gain more followers, missionaries incorporated some of the pagan Winter Solstice celebrations into the Christian holiday. It was an easy association to make since the pagan rituals involved nature. Long before Christianity, cultures such as those in Gaul and Rome decorated their homes with evergreen branches and even entire trees, which represented the life that still existed even in the dead of winter. If you learned about Christmas trees in Sunday school, you probably learned evergreens, which never shed their leaves, are representations of the everlasting life for the followers of Christ.
In the Middle Ages, folklore said that when Christ was born, all the trees throughout the world shook off snow and ice and began to grow new leaves. During the Renaissance, these festive plants were popular in Germany where they were decked with apples, symbols of the Garden of Eden. Over time, Germans also added other decorations such wafers that signified the Eucharist; these eventually evolved into cookie ornaments. As Germans immigrated to other lands, they brought their traditions with them. While it is not known when the first Christmas tree was decorated in England, we know it was made famous in 1848 when a tree decorated by German Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, was featured in the London News. This made the Christmas tree much more popular in both Britain and America.
In the 1870s, Germany began exporting glass ornaments and in in 1882, the first tree lights were produced, providing a safer alternative to candles. Modern decorations include lights, ornaments, tinsel and garland. Each year more than 100 million Christmas trees are on display throughout the world. These include both real and manufactured trees displayed in homes, businesses and in public. Famous trees include the iconic tree in Rockefeller Center, New York as well as trees in Red Square, Russia; St Peter’s Square in Rome, Trafalgar Square in London, a floating tree in Ipanema Lagoon, Rio de Janeiro, and the National Christmas Tree in Washington D.C. Will you put up a tree this year?