A beautifully decorated evergreen tree, with
colored lights ablaze inspires in many warm memories of Christmases long past.
The Christmas tree has become one of the most beloved and well know holiday
symbols. Long before the advent of Christianity,
plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people
in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive
season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs
over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens
would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
The tradition of a holiday tree has been around
since ancient times and has played an important part in winter celebrations for
many centuries. Many pagan festivals used trees when honoring their gods and
spirits. In Northern Europe the Vikings considered the evergreen a symbol and
reminder that the darkness and cold of winter would end and the green of spring
would return. The Druids of ancient England and France decorated oak trees with
fruit and candles to honor their gods of harvests. At the festival Saturnalia
the Romans decorated trees with trinkets and candles.
There have also been many legends surrounding
the lore of the Christmas tree. In one story Saint Boniface, an English monk,
came upon a group of pagans who had gathered around an oak tree and were
preparing to sacrifice a child. To stop the sacrifice and save the child, the
Saint flattened the oak tree with one blow of his fist. A small fir sprang up in
its place, which Saint Boniface told the pagans was the Tree of Life and
represented the life of Christ.
Another legend tells of Martin Luther, the
founder of the Protestant religion, walking through the woods late one night. As
it was clear, many stars were shining through the branches of the trees giving
the impression of twinkling lights. Luther was so inspired by the beauty of the
sight that he cut down a small evergreen and brought it home. He recreated the
stars by putting candles on the tree's branches.
The use of a Christmas tree indoors appears to
have begun in Germany. German Christians would bring trees into their homes to
decorate. In some areas evergreen trees were scarce so the families would build
a Christmas pyramid, simple wooden structures which they decorated with branches
The tradition of the Christmas tree eventually
spread through out Europe. The English Royalty help popularize the tree in
England by decorating the first Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841. Prince
Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, decorated the first English Christmas Tree
with candles, candies, fruits, and gingerbread.
When the German immigrants went to American
they also brought along their Christmas trees. In the 1830's most Americans
still considered the Christmas tree an oddity. One of the first public displays
of a Christmas tree was set up by German Settlers in Pennsylvania. At the time
many still considered the tree to be a symbol of pagans and it wasn't until the
late 1800's that Americans began accepting the Christmas tree.
Early Christmas trees were often decorated with
apples, nuts, cookies, colored popcorn and candles. The invention of electricity
in the early 20th century and use of electrical Christmas lights helped spread
the use of the Christmas tree.
It is now common in most communities through
out the US to feature public displays of Christmas trees. Every year the
President of the United States lights the National Christmas Tree in Washington
and in New York skaters spin beneath the lighted tree of Rockefeller Center.
Through Europe and the rest of the world the Christmas tree has also become
readily accepted and adored.
In the Northern hemisphere, the
shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22
and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was
a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and
weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun
god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green
plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would
The ancient Egyptians worshipped a
god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in
his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the
Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for them
the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans marked the solstice with
a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The
Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green
and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with
In Northern Europe the mysterious
Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with
evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in
Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god,
Germany is credited with starting the
Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout
Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas
pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was
scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century
Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his
home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of
stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he
erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Most 19th-century Americans found
Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the
1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a
tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements
had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees
were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
It is not surprising that, like many
other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the
New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims's second governor,
William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan
mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential
Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas
carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated "that
sacred event." In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law
making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal
offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity
continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants
undermined the Puritan legacy.
In 1846, the popular royals, Queen
Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated
London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the
previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was
done at court immediately became fashionableŚnot only in Britain, but with
fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.
By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were
arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the
U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height,
while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.
The early 20th century saw Americans
decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American
sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in
after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity
brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow
for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares
across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American