Did you know the beautiful practice of decorating a fir has very ancient pagan roots? Read on to find out the truth behind the Christmas Tree origin.
Christmas without a Christmas tree is like The Doors without Jim Morrison: it simply doesn’t make sense anymore. There’s no greater symbol for this very special holiday than a fully decorated evergreen fir, with its glorious scent and its heartwarming gleam. So, it’s only proper, to honor such an endearing Christmas trademark, to know exactly where it comes from. For your pleasure, here is the truth behind the Christmas tree origin!
We’ve talked about the pagan roots of other holidays, such as Halloween and Thanksgiving. Christmas is no exception. If you were thinking (or hoping) our winter celebrations were a proper Christian tradition, well, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, experts estimate that Christ wasn’t even born anywhere near December 25th, so there’s that. But let’s start from the beginning.
A matter of green hope
A long, long time ago, thousands of years before Christianity was ever dreamed up, evergreen plants and trees—that is, plants and trees that remained green all year round and never lost their foliage—were already given a very special significance, particularly during winter. Survival in the northern hemisphere has always been precarious in wintertime, and this was especially true before heating and modern medicine were developed.
Like most animals, humans had to take special precautions during this time: storing grains and food was of vital importance. A bad harvest meant almost certain death. Most plants also prepare for the harsh conditions of colder climates: broadleaf trees need to shed their foliage, for example, to survive. So, it isn’t surprising that the plants that remain the same come cold or heat represent an inspiring tale, an ideal, a relief, for those who’d feel that all is lost during the final months of the year. Evergreen plants and trees hint at the resilience of life and bring a ray of hope to an otherwise gray world.
From pagan origins
Ever since before the ancient Egyptians, people from around the Northern Hemisphere used to gather evergreen plants and twigs to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, the time when the day is shortest and night is longest—usually on the 21st or 22nd of December. Considering the Sun a living God, pagan civilizations took the darker months to indicate the weakening state of our vital star, and winter solstice represented its most feeble and tired state. This was a time of celebration, however, as people knew that after it rested the Sun would begin anew, rising with increasing strength each day. The winter solstice meant winter was soon to end and spring was about to be born.
To signal the coming of spring and the renewal of sunlight, these communities developed similar rituals involving trees and twigs and plants. The Egyptians celebrated the solstice by filling their homes with green palm rushes to honor the sun god, Ra. The mystical Celts, who lived in Northern Europe, would garnish their druid temples with the boughs and twigs from evergreen trees. Likewise, the Vikings believed evergreen plants represented the god of light, Balder. Finally, ancient Romans used evergreen branches to celebrate one of their most important festivals, Saturnalia, to honor the god Saturn and to mark the solstice.
(Ra, the Egyptian Sun God)
It is mostly on account of Saturnalia that we celebrate Jesus of Nazareth’s birth on December 25. The early Christian Romans chose that specific date, the final day of Saturnalia, for the clear political reason of appealing to their pagan countrymen and countrywomen.
The proverbial tree comes
However, the actual tree-decorating tradition didn’t begin until 16th-century Germany. Initially, the practice wasn’t well received (seeing as it held deeply pagan origins), but people smuggled trees into their homes nonetheless. Germans also built wooden pyramids decorated with evergreens and candles.
Many believe that the first and main early promoter of illuminating these Christmas ornaments was Protestant Martin Luther, who was known for being rather unencumbered by strict Catholic precepts. It is said that one fine night, as he was walking home through the woods (or, perhaps, as he was writing a sermon), he was struck and amazed by the magical sight of the stars shinning brightly through the evergreen trees. He wished to share this sublime experience with his loved ones, and attempted to reproduce the scene by placing a fir in his home and carefully setting lit candles all around it.
Funnily enough, in its early days the use of Christmas trees was heavily condemned by clergymen and statesmen, both in Europe as in the U.S. Like with Halloween, English and American Puritans spoke explicitly against the practice, citing its pagan origins and deeming it a distraction from the worshiping of the Christ.
(19th century engraving of the royal family around a Christmas tree)
Enter Queen Victoria. That's right, it took until the 19th century for Christmas trees to actually become popular and accepted beyond the borders of Germany. In the 1840s, an official sketch of the royal family showed up on the Illustrated London News, where the Queen and her husband, Albert, were seen standing with their children around an ornamented fir. Since Queen Victoria herself was very popular—not only among her subjects, but in the world—, this was the ultimate endorsing that pushed Christmas trees into mainstream usage across all countries. By the end of the 19th century, tall firs were already widely used in the U.S.
(The sketch of Queen Victoria and her family published in Illustrated London News)
Then came the 20th century and, well, you know the rest. Basically, ornamented trees ended up becoming an essential part of the Christmas celebrations, much to the dismay of strict and old-fashioned religious people. Yes, it's a pagan tradition, and that makes it even better. Merry Christmas!