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Oh, Christmas Tree! — A Brief History

A few years back, I went on my first adventure of cutting down a Christmas tree. I went with some close friends of mine and their adorable two-year-old daughter. It was my first time, and I was excited. We drove out of the city limits into the snow-filled hills of the countryside and rolled up to a Christmas tree farm that promised “the best trees in town” as well as “hot cider for $3”.

It was bitterly cold that day, and I hadn’t bundled up for it — As a Canadian, I should know better. Yielding a saw and a sled, we gallivanted across the white fields dotted with perfectly spaced evergreen trees. Families could be seen darting about in frenzied search for a suitable tree, but we took our time. And I mean TIME. You see, my friend is a trained horticulturist and master of anything plant related, and this trip to collect a tree was seen as a mission to find the healthiest, most perfect Christmas tree one could buy.

We spent hours in the blistering cold, with the wind sweeping up gusts of snow, while we circled what seemed to me to be the same trees over and over again.

“Hey, this tree looks good!” I’d say.
“Nope. No good. That one’s girth is off” or “This one won’t do because it has a bald spot” and, so forth.

Disillusioned, and fed up, and with snot frozen to my face, and purple fingers, I trudged on. This holly-jolly adventure had become like shopping for underwear with your great aunt in a department store. No fun.

And finally, we came upon the perfect tree. The golden Adonis of Christmas trees stood in front of us, and we all agreed that this was the one. We hastily got to work sawing it down.

Finally success!

I could picture a warm cup of cider in my future and was once again happy. But then came the task of tying this giant tree to the roof of the car. And what happened? We tied the doors shut with it.

Well. I still love my friends, and I look back on that day and laugh (it wasn’t all bad. I suppose I just hate the cold). But I did learn never to shop for Christmas trees with a horticulturist.

On the drive back, I started thinking about how strange the tradition of the Christmas tree was — how on earth did it connect to Christmas at all? Well, I wanted to find out!

As it happens, it has quite a unique history and one worth sharing.

Pre-Christian Origins
Evergreen pine bough
Photo by Jennifer Aitkens

Dotted among many ancient cultures such as Egypt, to China, Pagan Europe, and many Hebrew communities, lies the idea of the evergreen as a representation of eternal life and good tidings to come.

In Egypt, the use of palm leaves, which remained green through the cool months, was used to worship the sun god, Ra. Leading up to the darkest day of the year, people believed that decorating their homes and communities with green palm leaves would please Ra since it was a representation of the sunnier warm months, as well as a representation of the cycle of eternal life after death.

Similarly, evergreens (including olive trees) were seen as a Hebrew metaphor for everlasting life. While in China, evergreens were also viewed as a symbol of longevity and the representation of family and ancestors.

Throughout the Roman empire, the annual celebration of Saturn, the god of agriculture and renewal, was marked by elaborate feasts that took place from December 17th – 23rd. A symbol of the rebirth as well as a representation of a green spring to come, evergreens would commonly adorn the festivities.

Traveling up into Northern Europe, the Vikings often associated evergreens with their sun god, Baldar, whereas the mysterious Celtic priests, known as Druids, celebrated the winter solstice (December 21st/22nd) with evergreens, recognizing that spring was on the horizon. In Poland, an ancient tradition of hanging an evergreen bough from the ceiling during the Slavic winter Festival known as Koliada was a symbol of a good planting season to come.

Looking at all of these varied cultures, it’s clear that the parallels between evergreens and the hope of springtime are pretty much universal, as well as the association with everlasting life and rebirth. Not only that, but across many of these groups, evergreens were believed to also protect homes from nefarious spirits during the dark winter months.

But, how does this equate to the Christmas tree of today? Well, we’d need to dive into medieval European tradition for that!

Medieval Europe

Many beliefs surround the emergence of the Christmas tree as we know it.

Some believe its roots go back to 16th century Latvia and Estonia when supposedly a group of merchants and shipowners under a guild called the Brotherhood of Black Heads decided to decorate an evergreen tree, dance around it, and light it ablaze afterward. Why? Who knows — Perhaps it was just some mischievous fun during the darkest month of the year.

Funnily, to this day, both countries hotly debate who did it first.

Other claims date back to St. Boniface the Great, who traveled to Germany during the 8th century to spread Christianity. On his travels, it’s said that he came upon a human sacrifice that was taking place under a sacred oak tree. Enraged at this sight, he chopped the tree down, and in its place, an evergreen grew — which, he proclaimed, was a symbol of Christ’s everlasting life.

Others theorize that the Christmas tree is an adaptation of the Paradise Tree used in medieval celebrations marking the name days of both Adam and Eve on December 24th. During these celebrations, short plays called pantomimes were commonplace, and the inclusion of a Paradise Tree was often incorporated. Decorated with apples and wafers, this tree represented the tree of knowledge.

And lastly, another theory ties the Christmas tree back to 16th-century German protestant reformer, Martin Luther, who’s said to have taken inspiration from a starry night time walk. Struck by the magic and beauty of the stars glimmering over the snow-laden evergreen trees, he decided to recreate this magic by bringing a small evergreen into his home and decorating it with candles for his family to enjoy, suggesting that the candles represented the stars and the light of Christ.

German Influences
Candle and Christmas tree
Photo by Malene Thyssen

From this last theory burgeoned the idea that decorating an evergreen tree with lights, and later, treats, was a reminder of Martin Luther’s doctrine and influence over his followers, making it a traditional symbol of Christmas time for German Protestants since the 1500s.

As the tradition grew, the sight of elaborate Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas trees) was a common sight in town squares and other public places. These trees were often decorated by local artisans and craftsmen, with fruits, nuts, pieces of cakes, cookies, and candies as gifts for the town’s children.

As Germans began to immigrate to parts of North America, they brought with them this tradition and introduced the Christmas tree to the new world.

Although disputed, some say that the first Christmas tree in North America was spotted in Quebec when German troops stationed in British forts during the fight against the attempted American invasion of 1775 put one up to celebrate the season. Others believe that it was brought to Pennsylvania by German settlers to maintain their cultural practices in a new land.

Regardless of whoever was the first, Christmas trees were widely regarded by non-Germans as bizarre and sacrilegious, since they were thought to have pagan origins. In fact, Christmas trees (and any form of celebration during the Christmas season that wasn’t a simple church ceremony), was even banned in some parts of New England in which penalties and punishment were enforced.

With so much backlash against the innocent Christmas tree, it’s a curious thing as to how it eventually became an accepted symbol of Christmas across the world. Well, that can be pointed to the influence of the British Royal Family, and Queen Victoria, specifically.

Queen Victoria the Trendsetter

Christmas trees were an uncommon item to behold in most countries outside of Germany. That is until Queen Victoria changed all of that with her celebrity power.

Although not common knowledge at the time, young Victoria grew up accustomed to having a Christmas tree in the palace since her German mother brought these traditions with her to the UK when she married into the British Royal Family.

Victoria would delight in the twinkling decorative tree and was very fond of this token of her German ancestry. When Victoria married Prince Albert (also German), they ensured that their children would remain familiar with this Christmas tradition.

Although homes throughout the UK were decorated during the Christmas season, the idea of a Christmas tree was widely unaccepted and considered strange. That is until the media got hold of this beloved Royal Family ritual.

In 1848, an illustration of Queen Victoria decorating a Christmas tree alongside her family was published in the London News, which quickly made its way across the country, and even further abroad to the Eastcoast of America, propelling the Christmas tree into fame.

As wealthy socialites and aristocrats snapped up the news, they too wanted to take part in this now suddenly acceptable tradition. After all, if the Queen was doing it, it had to be a trend worth partaking in.

As the century came to a close, the idea of the Christmas tree became ingrained in most people’s Christmas traditions, and the sight of one dazzling in most town squares or the windows of homes was no longer a novelty but an expectation — a tradition that continues to this day.

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