The History of the Christmas Tree


The tradition of having an evergreen tree become a symbol of Christmas goes back past recorded written history.

The Druids in ancient England & Gual and the Romans in Europe both used evergreen branches to decorate their homes and public buildings to celebrate the Winter Solstice.  Over the years, these traditions were adopted by Christians, who incorporated them as part of their Christmas holiday celebration.

Trees used specifically to celebrate Christmas are mentioned in the early 1600's in Germany and surrounding countries.  The families would set up these trees in a prominent location of their home and decorate them with colored paper, small toys, food, and sometimes candles.  As these people moved or immigrated to other countries, they brought this tradition with them.

Through the years many different things were used to decorate Christmas trees.  As the world moved into the 1900's, many trees were decorated with strings of popcorn, homemade cards and pictures, cotton to look like snow, candy in all shapes and sizes, and occasionally, fancy store made glass balls and hand blown glass figurines.  Candles were sometimes used, but often caused devastating fires, and many different types of candle holders were devised to try to prevent tree fires.  Electric tree lights were first used just 3 years after Thomas Edison has his first mass public demonstration of electric lights back in 1879.  The early Christmas tree lights were handmade and quite expensive.  Today, Christmas tree ornaments can be found in nearly every size, color, and shape imaginable, and they are used to decorate the millions of Christmas trees used throughout the world.

According to legend evergreen trees were not always green.  Before the birth of Christ they lost their leaves each winter like other trees.  But while Mary, Joseph and Jesus were on their way to Egypt they were forced to hide from Herod's soldiers in a clump of cedar trees.  To hide the holy family the trees brought forth green needles and the cedars white berries turned blue so that Mary's blue robe blended in.  Since that day evergreen trees have kept their color all year round.  Another related legend says that a pine tree hid the holy family and that the baby Jesus left the imprint of his hand forever in their fruit and that if you cut a pine cone lengthwise you can still see the imprint of that tiny hand.

While the legend of the origins of the Christmas tree is interesting the history is equally fascinating.  It is known that back long before Jesus Germanic peoples would adorn evergreen trees in winter solstice ceremonies of sorts.  The origins of the Christian Christmas Tree can be traced to St. Boniface (8th century) who as a missionary to the Germanic tribes used the triangular shape of evergreen trees as a symbol of the trinity.  A legend attached to this origin says that St. Boniface came upon some people preparing to sacrifice a child to an oak tree.  In an attempt to stop the sacrifice he grabbed the ceremonial ax and in one blow cut down the oak tree, when it fell a small fir tree sprang from its stump.   This legend is probably a way of chronicling in story form that St. Boniface replaced the worship of the Germanic gods, symbolized by the old oak tree with the new Christian religion, symbolized by the Christianized fir tree. 

By the 11th century evergreen trees were decorated with apples and bread to symbolize the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil told about in Genesis.  It was referred to as the Paradise tree and used in religious plays.  The Paradise tree became a popular decoration in homes and churches.

There is also the oft repeated story that Martin Luther in the 16th century originated the use of Christmas trees.  It is said that one his way home from a Christmas eve service he saw the starlight glistening off the icicles on an evergreen tree.  It so reminded him of Jesus the light of the world that he cut the small tree down and took it inside and decorated it with candles to illustrate what he saw.

The tradition of the Christmas tree appears to have been exported to England through royalty from Germany and later to America by German and English immigrants.