The Christmas Tree

Explanations for the origins of the Christmas tree vary. In tracing the custom of decorating a tree for Christmas back to its likely origin, we find it as distinctly blended with pagan influences as many other Christmas observances. The Christmas tree epitomises many ancient ideas and is perhaps the only remnant today of humankind’s history of tree-reverence. The Tree of Knowledge, the Cosmic Tree, the May Tree, the Harvest Tree, as well as the universal idea of regarding trees as embodiments of deities, have all disappeared. 

The tradition of the Yule Tree or Solstice Tree during the winter solstice probably goes back to early Indo-European tribes, who decorated trees with blazing torches as part of their fire festivals to persuade the sun to shine again. Ornaments and offerings were hung on trees in sacred groves, and evergreens were brought into homes to symbolise life in the midst of wintery death. 

With the spread of Christianity, a popular possibility why a decorated tree might have become associated with Christmas was linked to the legend of Adam and Eve. The early Church had consecrated the 24th day of December as a feast day to Adam and Eve, and Christian legend has it that Adam and Eve took from Paradise a cutting from the Tree of Knowledge. During the Middle Ages, Bible stories were often taught to the illiterate masses through stage plays. For the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the ‘tree of temptation’ was always depicted by using a fir tree – a logical choice during cold December in the Northern Hemisphere. This so-called Paradise Tree was decorated with apples, symbolising the forbidden fruit. Gradually, people began setting up Paradise Trees in their homes with little figurines of Adam and Eve under the tree to celebrate their feast day. Besides this decorated tree, many Germans also set up a Christmas Pyramid called a Lichtstock, an open wooden frame with shelves for nativity figures, candles, and evergreens, topped with the Star of Bethlehem. A popular contention is that the Paradise Tree and Lichtstock gradually merged to what was to become the Christmas tree.

In Germany, generally considered the land of origin of the Christmas tree, it can be traced back to the beginning of the sixteenth century in churches and guildhalls. During the seventeenth century, the tradition entered family homes. According to Lutheran theologian Johann Dannhauer, Christmas trees were then decorated with apples, paper roses, Communion wafers, sweets, gold foil, and dolls. By the nineteenth century, this German custom had become popular amongst the nobility of many European countries, spreading to royal courts as far as Russia. 

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Queen Victoria, made the Christmas tree a tradition in Britain by introducing one from his German homeland to Windsor Castle in 1841. Eager to emulate the royals, Victorian families took up the tradition, although Charles Dickens still referred to the Christmas tree as the ‘new German toy’ in 1850.125 In America, the Christmas tree was probably first used in the early eighteenth century, introduced by German settlers to western Pennsylvania.

Since the nineteenth century, the diffusion of the Christmas tree throughout the world has been so rapid that there is nothing to compare with it in the entire history of popular customs. The Christmas tree is ever popular and forms an essential feature of the Christmas festival. Modern decorations consist mainly of plastic baubles, electric lights, miniature Santas, and angels. Because of commercialism, plastic and even fibre-optic trees, which can be folded up and re-used yearly, are available in stores worldwide.


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