The Christmas tree is probably one of the most traditional symbols of Christmas, and evert year we see it on greeting cards, advertisements, cookies, wrapping paper, and, of course, in all shopping centers and in the homes of millions of people around the world.
But why we decorate a tree, apart from the fact that it always brings a little bit of Christmas atmosphere at home?
The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years.
While the celebration of Christmas is typically associated with Christianity and the birth of Jesus Christ, the symbolism of an evergreen tree did not have a place in early Christianity. In fact, it was not mentioned linked with Christmas at all until 1605 in Germany, and some people suggest that the German reformer Martin Luther popularized the use of the Christmas tree.
It seems that Luther, inspired by the beauty of the stars on Christmas Eve night, have cut an evergreen and put lighted candles on it to represent the starry sky above the stable the night Jesus was born.
There is another german legend about Christmas Tree.
According to the legend, once on a cold Christmas Eve night, a forester and his family were in their cottage gathered round the fire to keep warm. Suddenly there was a knock on the door, and when the forester opened the door, he found a poor little boy standing on the door step. The forester welcomed him into his house and the family fed and washed him and put him to bed in the youngest sons own bed. The next morning, Christmas Morning, the family were woken up by a choir of angels, and the poor little boy had turned into Jesus, the Christ Child. So the Christ Child went into the garden and broke a branch off a Fir tree and gave it to the family as a present to say thank you for looking after him. So ever since them, people have remembered that night by bringing a Christmas Tree into their homes!
Already in the early 1600s, trees decorated with candies, fruits, and paper flowers were a part of the holiday decorations in German homes, where the first Christmas Trees were decorated with edible things, such as gingerbread and gold covered apples. Then glass makers made special small ornaments similar to some of the decorations used today.
However, the symbolism of evergreen trees has much earlier origins that can be linked to the worship of the Sun God Mithras around 600 BC, because Mithras was often pictured in an evergreen tree or next to one.
Centuries later, the evergreen tree also became a symbol with special significance in Northern Europe.
Plants and trees that remained green all-year-round had always had an important role for ancient peoples living in far northern regions, especially around the darkest day of the year: the winter solstice, celebrated on 21st December in the Northern hemisphere. So, people who worshipped the sun as a god began to celebrate it: they believed that the sun had grown sick and weak over the winter and needed to be revived. Ancient European cultures had the practice of hanging evergreen boughs in and around their homes, as it made them think of the spring to come.
Also the Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia.
Despite lot of suppositions, nobody is really sure when pine trees were first used as Christmas trees. It probably began about 1000 years ago in Northern Europe, and many early Christmas Trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains, hung from chandeliers.
Other early Christmas Trees, across many parts of northern Europe, were cherry or hawthorn plants. If people couldn’t afford a real plant, they made pyramids of woods and they were decorated to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles, and It’s possible that the wooden pyramid trees were meant to be like Paradise Trees. These were used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches on Christmas Eve. In early church calendars of saints, 24th December was Adam and Eve’s day, and the Paradise Tree represented the Garden of Eden.
Even if this miracle plays were later banned by the church, this tradition spread widely and has been kept alive today in millions of homes over Christmas.
Another documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is argued between the cities of Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia. Both claim that they had the first trees, and both trees were put up by the “Brotherhood of Blackheads”, an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners in Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia).
In the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, there is a plaque which is engraved with “The First New Year’s Tree in Riga in 1510”, in eight languages.
Another story says that St. Boniface of Crediton, a village in Devon, UK, left England and traveled to Germany to preach to the pagan German tribes and convert them to Christianity. He is said to have come across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young boy while worshipping an oak tree. In anger, and to stop the sacrifice, it seems that St. Boniface to have cut down the oak tree and, to his amazement, a young fir tree sprang up from the roots of the oak tree. St. Boniface took this as a sign of the Christian faith and his followers decorated the tree with candles so that St. Boniface could preach to the pagans at night.
The first Christmas Trees came to Britain sometime in the 1830s, and became very popular in 1841, when Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s German husband) had a Christmas Tree set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the Illustrated London News, and later republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia in December 1850 (but they removed the Queen’s crown and Prince Albert’s moustache to make it look American!).
The publication of this drawing helped Christmas Trees become popular in the UK and USA.
In Victorian times, the tree would have been decorated with candles to represent stars, and in many parts of Europe, candles are still used to decorate Christmas trees.