For most people, it is unthinkable to not have a Christmas tree with ornaments and presents under it when celebrating Christmas. Like many Christmas traditions, the origin of the Christmas tree can be traced back to pagan traditions. If not for Queen Victoria, decorated fir trees may have remained a custom that only a couple of Slavic and Germanic countries practiced. This is the intriguing history of the Christmas tree.
The pagan origins of the Christmas tree all started when the ancient Egyptians used to decorate their temples for Ra, the god of the sun, with green palm fronds during the Winter Solstice. However, long before Christianity even appeared, people who lived in the Northern Hemisphere used evergreen plants to decorate their houses, particularly their front/ back doors. They usually put up their decorations during December for the Winter Solstice which was on either December 21 or December 22. These dates had the shortest day, but the longest nights. Traditionally, this was the time of year that is seen as the return in strength of the sun god who had been weakened during the winter. The evergreen plants served as a reminder that the gods would glow and rise once more and summer was returning.
The Vikings thought evergreens were the plants of Balder, the god of peace and light. the Ancient Romans marked the Winter Solstice with a feast called Saturnalia. They had this feast to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. Like the Celts, they also decorated their temples and homes with evergreen boughs.
And while most of the ancient cultures used evergreens around Christmas time, historical records suggest that the Christmas tree tradition started in the 16th century by Germans who had decorated their fir trees inside their homes. Some Christian cults celebrated the Saints on Christmas Eve. In the Middle Ages, people would perform plays out in the open about Adam and Eve with a “ paradise tree” to symbolize the garden of Eden. However, not long after these plays would be banned by the clergy who considered them acts of heathenry.
After the banning, people started to secretly collect evergreen branches or trees and brought them to their houses. These branches were called “paradise trees” and were often put together with wooden pyramids made of branches held together by rope. Some families would also fasten and light candles for each of their family members. These were the precursors of our modern Christmas tree lights and ornaments. They would also put edibles such as gingerbread and gold covered apples. Surprising enough, Martin Luther was one of the first, if not the first to light a candle on a Christmas tree. Some say that he was walking around the woods one evening, around Christmas time, when he was struck by the beauty of the starlight shining through the fir trees. He wanted to share with his family what he had discovered so he cut down a small fir tree, took it home, and lit a candle on the branches to symbolize the Christmas sky.
By 1605, Christmas trees were becoming a more and more common custom, that year, historical records suggest the inhabitants of Strasbourg ‘set fir trees in the parlors and hung there on roses cut from may colored papers. During the early days of the Christmas tree, many statesmen and members of the clergy condemned their use as a celebration of Christ. Lutheran minister Johan von Dannhauer complained that the symbol distracted people from the true evergreen, Jesus Christ.
It wouldn’t be until the time of Queen Victoria that celebrating Christmas by exchanging gifts around a fir tree became a worldwide custom. After Queen Victoria, an extremely popular monarch started celebrating Christmas with fir trees and presents hung on the branches as a favor to her husband, the lay folk immediately followed suit. Although the Christmas tree was very popular across the ocean, in the 19th century, Christmas trees weren’t at all popular, even though, Dutch and German settlers introduced them to the Queen’s influence. However, it wouldn’t be until American civic leaders, artists, and authors played on the image of a happy middle-class family exchanging gifts around a tree in an effort to replace Christmas customs that were seen as decadent, like wassailing. This family-centered image was further amplified by a very popular poem written by Clement Moore in 1822 known as the Night Before Christmas.”