There are numerous quaint and charming tales regarding the origin of the Christmas tree tradition but in actuality, this custom has nothing at all to do with the birth or life of Jesus Christ. Since ancient times, evergreen trees have been revered as a representation of fertility, sexual potency and reproduction. For centuries, evergreens have played an important role in Winter celebrations. Carried into homes and adorned with apples and other fruits, they were set up as symbolic idols. Such decorations were intended as food offerings to the tree and may be where the modern custom of placing gifts beneath the Christmas tree originated. According to some sources, the Christmas tree is actually a throwback to "Yggdrasil," the Great Tree of Life mentioned in Norse mythology.
Many pagan festivals used trees to honor their gods and spirits. In Northern Europe the Vikings considered the evergreen as symbol and a reminder that the darkness and cold of Winter would end and the green of Spring would return. The Druids of ancient England and France decorated oak trees with fruit and candles in honor of their gods at harvest time. For the Saturnalia ceremonies, Romans would decorate their trees with trinkets, candles and small pieces of metal.
The modern custom of an indoor Christmas tree is thought to have originated in Germany. German Christians would bring trees into their homes to decorate. In some areas where evergreen trees were scarce, the families would build a Christmas pyramid...a simple wooden structure which would then be adorned with branches and candles.
It is difficult to pinpoint the date that Christmas trees were first decorated in America. Some believe the tradition may have begun with the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who decorated trees in the very early 1800s. Another theory is that the first American Christmas tree was set up by Hessian soldiers at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1776. Certainly by the early 1800s, there were many decorated trees to be found throughout the United States but the term "Christmas tree" did come into common use until 1830.
The tradition of a Christmas tree spread across America during the 1800s with the arrival of German immigrants. One of the first public displays of a Christmas tree was set up by German settlers in Pennsylvania at a time when many people still considered the tree to be a symbol of pagans. The Germans would bake fancy ornaments for their trees and then consume the decorations when the trees were taken down. After Christmas, these frugal people wouls strip the needles and then wrap the branches in cotton to extend the life of the tree for several Christmases to come. Fruits, nuts, flowers and lighted candles also adorned the first American Christmas trees, but only the strongest could support such a weight without drooping. Thus, German glassblowers began producing lightweight glass balls to replace heavier, natural decorations. These lights and decorations were representations of the joy and light of Christmas, with the star atop the tree symbolic of the "Star in the East."
In England, royalty helped to popularize the notion of a Christmas tree by decorating the first at Windsor Castle in 1841. Prince Albert, husband and Consort of Queen Victoria, adorned this first English Christmas tree with candles, candies, fruits and gingerbread. Already a popular tradition in Germany...the country of Albert's birth...the Prince Consort suggested the idea as a reminder of his homeland. Ever ready to comply with her beloved husband's desires, Queen Victoria readily agreed. Although generally adverse to anything German in origin, the public held their Queen in such high regard that they had soon adopted the custom for themselves.
The first written record of a Christmas tree is that of an anonymous Frenchman who was a visitor to Strasbourg, Germany, in 1601. He describes a Fir tree he had seen in a home upon which had been hung: "wafers and golden sugar-twists (Barley sugar), roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, gold foil and sweets."
In 722 A.D., Saint Boniface, an English missionary and Benedictine monk who was known
as the "Apostle of Germany," came upon some men about to cut down a huge oak tree to be
used as a stake for a human sacrifice to Thor, one of the Norse Gods. With a mighty
blow from an axe, Saint Boniface felled the massive oak and, as the tree split apart,
a beautiful young fir tree sprang from its center. Saint Boniface informed the people
that this beautiful evergreen, whose branches pointed toward heaven, was a
holy tree...the tree of the Christ Child, symbolizing the purty of the New Faith and
the promise of eternal life. Saint Boniface then instructed them to henceforth carry
the evergreen from the wilderness, place it into their homes and surround it with
gifts symbolic of love and kindess.
Saint Boniface, whose feast day is celebrated on June 5th, received the name Winfrid
at his baptism but adopted Boniface before he was ordained to the priesthood.
He was martyred in Holland at the age of 75, along with 52 members of his flock,
when they were set upon by a troop of pagans. Saint Boniface is the Patron Saint of
Germany, as well as being the Patron Saint of Tailors and Brewers.
A very old and delightful European custom centers around decorating a Fir tree with
apples and small white wafers which represents the Holy Eucharist.
These wafers were later replaced by small pieces of pastry cut into the shapes
of stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells. Eventually, additional pastries were
introduced bearing the shapes of men, birds, roosters and other animals.
During the Middle Ages, around the Eleventh Century, religious theater was born.
One of the most popular plays...the German mystery play...concerned Adam and Eve and
their fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, represented by a Fir tree hung with
apples. This tree was symbolic of both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Discernment of
Good and Evil, which stood in the center of Paradise. The play ended with the prophecy
of a coming Savior. For this reason, it was often enacted during Advent.
The one piece of scenery...the "Paradeisbaum" or "Paradise Tree"...became a popular
object and was often set up in churches. Eventually, it also found its way into private
homes and became a symbol of the Savior. Since the tree was representative not only of
Paradise and the fall of man, but also the promise of salvation, it was hung not merely
with apples, but with bread or wafers (Holy Eucharist) and often sweets to represent
the sweetness of redemption. In some areas of Bavaria, fir branches and little trees
decorated with lights, apples and tinsel are still called "Paradeis."
In Christian legend, it was a Fir tree that grew as the Tree of Life in the Garden of
Eden. When Eve plucked its fruit, the foliage and flowers shrank to nothing but
needles. Only on the night of the Nativity would the Fir tree bloom again...a moment
mirrored perhaps by the Christmas tree of the Christians.
On the night of the Christ Child's birth, all living creatures, both flora and fauna,
traveled to Bethlehem bearing gifts. The Olive tree, for example, brought its fruit
and the Palm tree its dates. But the little Fir tree had no gift and was so tired that
it was unable to resist when the larger trees pushed it into the background and hid it
from view. But then, a nearby Angel took pity and commanded a cluster of stars to
descend and rest upon its delicate boughs. When the Baby Jesus beheld this lovely
lighted tree, he smiled and blessed it, declaring henceforth that Fir trees should
always be filled with lights at Christmastime to please little children.
When Christianity first came to Northern Europe, three personages representing virtues
were dispatched from Heaven to place lights on the original Christmas tree. These
personages were Faith, Hope and Charity. Their search was long, since they were
required to find a tree as high as hope, as great as love and as sweet as charity.
In addition, the tree had to bear the sign of the cross on every bough. Their search
finally ended in the forests of the North where they found the Fir. Lit by the
radiance of the stars, it became the first Christmas tree.
The triangular design of the Fir has also been usedto describe the Holy Trinity of God
the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Eventually, converts began to revere the Fir as God's
Tree...as they had once revered the Oak. By the Twelfth Century it was being hung,
upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a
symbol of Christianity.
When the Holy family was pursued by Herod's soldiers, many plants offered to provide
them with shelter. One such plant was the Pine tree. With Mary too weary to travel
any longer, the family stopped at the edge of a forest to rest. A gnarled old Pine
which had grown hollow with the years invited them to rest within its trunk.
Then, it closed its branches down upon them, keeping the family safe until the soldiers
had passed. Upon leaving, the Christ Child blessed the Pine and the imprint of his tiny
hand was left forever in the tree's fruit...the Pine cone.
If a cone is cut lengthwise, the hand may still be seen.
Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant religion, was taking a stroll through the
woods late one night. The sky was clear and many stars were shining through the
branches of the trees, giving the impression of twinkling lights. Luther was so
captivated and inspired by the beautiful brilliance of the sight that he cut down a
small evergreen and brought it home. He recreated the stars by placing candles upon the
tree's branches to imitate their radiance and presented it to his children.
Thomas Edison's assistant, Edward Johnson, put forward the theory of
electric lights for Christmas trees in 1882.
Christmas tree lights were first mass produced in 1890.
In 1900, department stores began to erect large illuminated Christmas trees.
Every year since 1947, the people of Oslo, Norway, have given a Christmas
tree to the city of Westminster in England. The gift is an expression
of good will and gratitude for Great Britain's help to
Norway during World War II.
In 1963, the National Christmas Tree in America was not lit until
December 22nd due to a 30-day period of mourning which
followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Since 1966, the United States National Christmas Tree Association has
given the gift of a tree to the President and First Family.
In 1979, with the exception of the topmost ornament, the American National
Christmas Tree remained unlit.This was done in remembrance
of the American hostages being held in Iran.
The State of Oregon produces the most real Christmas trees.
It takes a Christmas tree from seven to ten years to reach maturity.
Christmas trees remove dust and pollen from the air.
Christmas trees are grown in all American states (including Hawaii and Alaska).
100,000 people are employed in the Christmas tree industry.
On average, over 2,000 Christmas trees are planted per acre.
Real Christmas trees are involved in less than one-tenth of one percent of
residential fires...and then only when set ablaze
by some external source of ignition.
Approximately three seedlings are planted for every Christmas tree which is harvested.
One acre of Christmas trees provides for the daily oxygen
requirements of eighteen people.