Why do we cut down evergreen trees and decorate them with glittering ornaments and lights during the Christmas season? The answer involves the sun god, the Garden of Eden, and Charlie Brown.
Ancient Symbolism of Evergreen Trees
Perhaps you’re familiar with the symbolism attached to Christmas trees. Evergreen trees—typically spruce, pine, or fir—stay green throughout the year, representing everlasting life. To some, the triangular shape of the tree represents the Trinity. The star on top represents the star of Bethlehem that guided the wise men to the baby Jesus. The lights on the tree—candles, before electric lights were invented—also echo the light of the star of Bethlehem and symbolize Jesus Christ as the light of the world. Ornaments on the tree can mean many things, but they are often red, which brings to mind the blood of Christ.
What you might not know is that bringing evergreen trees into a dark winter abode once served as a reminder that the sun god, who was weak and sick in the winter, would bring new life once summer returned and he was strong again. In addition, evergreen boughs were once hung over doors to ward off evil spirits and illness. The idea of lighting the tree had its origin in pagan Yuletide rituals that celebrated the return of the light of the sun as the winter solstice passed and the days began to grow longer. Yule trees symbolizing the Tree of Life were decorated with ribbons, religious symbols, and objects that represented gifts people wanted to receive from the gods. The color green symbolizes fertility and new life, and red is associated with holly berries and mistletoe, plants once thought to be magical for their ability to keep their leaves and fruit through the winter.
Evergreen trees have been a part of winter festivals for thousands of years. From Yuletide and other winter solstice celebrations in Europe, to the early Roman festival of Saturnalia, to ancient Egyptian and Chinese worship of the sun god, bringing evergreen plants into homes and places of worship represented life and fertility in the darkness of winter. The Vikings and Saxons worshiped evergreen trees as a sacred symbol of deity, and some of that reverence was retained even after widespread conversion to Christianity.
The Paradise Tree
The Christian concept of the Christmas tree emerged in medieval Germany. At a time when many people were losing interest in typical church services held in Latin, craft guilds began to perform what were known as “mystery plays,” reenacting stories from the Bible in the vernacular language. One mystery play typically performed on December 24, the religious feast day commemorating Adam and Eve, included a fir tree as a prop to represent the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Paradise tree, as it was called, was decorated with apples to represent the fruit that Adam and Eve ate (the round, red ornaments we often use today are reminiscent of the apples on the Paradise tree). Wafers were hung on the tree to represent the Eucharist. In later years, these were replaced with cookies and other confections.
When mystery plays were banned in the sixteenth century, people began to set up Paradise trees in their homes. Often accompanying the tree was a “Christmas pyramid,” a contraption of wooden shelves that held religious figurines along with glass balls, evergreen boughs, and a candle. The Paradise tree and the Christmas pyramid eventually merged into the Christmas tree during the Renaissance. It is commonly believed that that Martin Luther was the first to place candles on the tree in awe of the glittering stars in the Christmas night sky, though there is no evidence to suggest this story is true.
Over the next few centuries, it was common among German Protestants to set up Christmas trees in their homes and decorate them with apples, gingerbread, nuts, paper ornaments, and candles. They were generally small and sometimes small presents and toys The Christmas tree was rejected by German Catholics as being either a Lutheran tradition or an icon of paganism. However, Christmas trees became popular among German nobility in the early eighteenth century and then began to spread throughout the royal courts of Europe, at which point they became more of an expression of German culture rather than Protestant identity.
Christmas Trees in Great Britain
The Christmas tree was introduced to Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. Churches and homes in Great Britain had been decorated with evergreen trees during the Christmas season since at least the early 1600s, but never had they been decorated with lights and surrounded with presents in the German fashion.
When King George III married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the union formed with the Kingdom of Hanover initiated a cultural exchange of Christmas traditions. Charlotte is known to have decorated an evergreen tree at Christmastime in the 1790s.
However, it was Queen Victoria who truly catapulted the Christmas tree into the spotlight. In an 1832 journal entry, the future Queen Victoria expressed delight at seeing a festive evergreen tree decorated with lights and ornaments and with presents placed around it. Britain’s ties to Germany and its Christmas traditions were further strengthened when Victoria married her German cousin Albert in 1840, making him the prince consort of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Then, an image of the Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle showcased the royal family surrounding a glowing evergreen tree lit with candles, the young princes and princesses admiring the tree in wonder. This image created a sensation when it was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. Because the middle class took their cues from the royal family’s new Christmas tradition, Christmas trees gained popularity in Great Britain through the 1830s and 1840s. Christmas trees were found first in the homes of the wealthier middle class and in places of public entertainment, then later spread to the homes of the common people.
Christmas Trees in North America
When the Windsor Castle image was reprinted in the American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850, Christmas trees came into fashion across the pond. By 1870, Christmas trees were commonplace in America, and Christmas was declared a national holiday.
However, Christmas trees had been introduced to North America nearly a century earlier by German soldiers in Quebec, who were stationed there as allies of Great Britain in the American Revolution. In 1781, General and Baroness von Riedesel threw a Christmas party for the officers that featured a fir tree ornamented with candles and fruit. Other areas claim to be the home of the first Christmas tree in the United States, including a 1777 Christmas tree in Connecticut, which was set up by an imprisoned German soldier, and community trees established in areas where German families lived. After the revolution, German immigrants introduced the Christmas tree in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, decorated variously with candy canes, paper ornaments, kuchen (the German word for “cake”), and a star on top. The celebration of Christmas—including Christmas trees—was most pronounced in Pennsylvania, with its large population of German immigrants.
Up until the 1840s, however, many Americans still rejected the Christmas tree as a pagan symbol. Puritans attempted to stamp out any “heathen” traditions—Christmas carols, Christmas trees, or anything else remotely joyful— that had creeped in to their typically austere observance of Christ’s birth. The image in Godey’s Lady’s Book provided the momentum for the Christmas tree—and the holiday in general—to be adopted in other areas of the country.
The Modern Christmas Tree
Over the next century, Christmas evolved from a small-scale religious and family celebration to an entire commercialized season with a variety of traditions. By the 1950s, Christmas with all the trimmings was available to the common family in the United States and Great Britain. With greater commercialization came new types of Christmas trees—brightly colored aluminum trees, in particular, caught the eye of many a shopper in the early 1960s.
In protest, the television special A Charlie Brown Christmas took a stand against these space-age decorations. While preparing for a neighborhood Christmas play, Lucy instructs Charlie Brown to get a “big, shiny aluminum tree . . . maybe painted pink” to decorate. Charlie Brown instead passes through a field of synthetic trees to pick out a real—but small and drooping—Christmas tree. The television special subverts the creeping consumerism that had come to dominate the Christmas season as Linus recites the simple annunciation to the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (see Luke 2:10–11). Aluminum trees quickly fell out of fashion after A Charlie Brown Christmas was aired.
Though many aspects of the Christmas celebration have their origins in paganism, the symbol of the Christmas tree took on new significance for Christians as they ascribed their own ritual meanings to it. Christmas today is celebrated by people of other religions or no religion, and the Christmas tree signifies different things to different people—eternal life, the hope of light in the darkness of winter, the warmth of a family gathering, or a reminder of Jesus as the light of the world.
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