History O’ Christmas Tree

Christmas tree history

Well before Christianity, the holiday known as Christmas or Christmas trees were things, people used evergreens as winter decorations. Many believed that boughs of evergreens hung above doorways could prevent witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and even illness. Ancient people celebrated the winter solstice (December 21st or 22nd, the longest night of the year). It was believed that winter was the result of the sun god becoming ill, thus the darkness. The solstice marked the return of the sun god’s health. Evergreen decorations were hung as reminders of the greenery to come when the sun god’s health improved.  Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Druids, and even Vikings had their own winter solstice celebrations.

Winter Solstice Celebrations

Ancient Egyptians

Ancient Egyptians worshipped a god named Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. During the winter solstice, when Ra began to recover from sickness, Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized the triumph of life over death.

Romans

For the Romans the winter solstice was marked by a feast, the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, also the god of agriculture. After solstice, Romans knew that farms and orchards would soon be lush again. So, they decorated homes and temples with evergreen boughs accordingly.

Druids

In Northern Europe, the priests of ancient Celts, Druids, decorated temples with evergreen boughs. To them, the year-round greenery symbolized everlasting life.

Vikings

In Scandinavia, evergreens were known as the special plant of the sun god, Balder.

Okay, we get it – lots of winter solstice celebrating was going on for a long, long time. But, what does that have to do with Christmas trees?

The Christmas Tree As We Know It

Some believe that Martin Luther was the first to create the Christmas tree. The story goes that the 16th century protestant reformer was walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, and found himself in awe at the brilliance of stars twinkling among the pines. To share the scene with his family, he set up an evergreen and wired its branches with lighted candles. How much of that is truth vs. lore is unknown, but it widely agreed that Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 1500s. But the tradition would not spread quickly, thanks to everyone’s favorite people, the Puritans.

The Puritans saw Christmas as sacred and the Christmas tree as a disgusting, pagan symbol. The belief was so extreme that the pilgrim’s second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the holiday, penalizing any frivolity. The persuasive Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” like Christmas carols, decorated Christmas trees, and any happy expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, Puritans went as far as the General Court of Massachusetts where they enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense. People were fined for hanging decorations! Eventually the growing population of German and Irish immigrants helped to drown out these unhappier holiday times. But, even into the latter half of the 1800s, many Americans still viewed a Christmas tree as a pagan tradition.

This all changed in 1846 when Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, appeared in an illustration in the London News – their family gathered around a Christmas tree. Queen Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court almost immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but also on the east coast of America. With that, the Christmas tree had arrived!

It took until the 1890s for the Christmas tree to spread across the United States, and by then, ornaments were even  being imported from Europe. By 1931, the popularity had risen enough that some construction workers at Rockefeller Center put up a small tree at the center of the construction site. Two years later, one with lights. As the popularity grew, so did the tree and in 1948 the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center was a whopping 100 feet tall.

All in all, Christmas trees have a lot of history, and are pretty fun. I guess we’ll keep them around, pagan roots and all. Send us a picture of your tree and we’ll share on Facebook. Happy Holidays!

Photo By DR04 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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