The Complicated History of the Christmas Tree

The Complicated History of the Christmas Tree

The history of the Christmas Tree might surprise you. Many myths surround its origin. Both the protestant and catholic traditions lay claim to the first Christmas Tree, while many tie it to ancient pagan rituals.

The first documented Christmas tree originated during the Middle Ages in Germany and has ties to the Garden of Eden.

The First Christmas Tree

Protestant tradition credits Martin Luther as the first to decorate a Christmas Tree. A World Vision radio broadcast aired on December 13, 1959, tells how Luther brought the symbolism and beauty of the evergreen into his home to encourage his wife and children through a cold dark winter. The evergreen, he said, represented the eternal love of God and the steadfastness of their own faith. The candles he decorated it with represented the star that led the Wise Men to Christ.

Martin Luther may have been the first to use the decorations as a symbol to tie the tree to the baby Jesus, but he was not the first to decorate the tree.

There is a story of a group of German bakers, nearly 65 years before Martin Luther was born, who decorated an evergreen on December 24, 1419, with baked treats, tinsel, and apples.

During the 12th Century, December 24th had become the feast day of Adam and Eve, and the Paradise Play, which shared the story of their creation, sin, banishment, and God’s forgiveness, was performed during the celebration. The one prop consistently used was an evergreen fir adorned with bright red apples. This tree was known as the “Paradise Tree.”

In 1419, a baker’s guild in Freiburg Germany, is reported to have displayed a Paradise Tree decorated with apples and wafers, tinsel, and gingerbread. This is possibly the first open display of what has come to be known as the Christmas Tree.

The first Christmas tree, as we have come to know it, might have been the creative genius of the baker’s guild of 1419 but it did not magically just appear. The history of the Christmas Tree is more sorted than that, surrounded by mythology, ancient rituals, and a deeper connection between humans and nature.

Where did the Christmas tree come from

Trees have been an essential part of faith-based rituals and used as decoration throughout all of human history. Egyptians used fresh palm rushes to worship Ra. Early Romans decorated their temples with evergreens to celebrate their God, Saturn. And pagans in Europe dressed the inside of their homes in evergreen branches during the Winter Solstice.

The Paradise Tree mentioned above ties it directly to the Christian creation story and the origin of humankind. One could easily say that the Christmas Tree tradition began at the very beginning and has evolved through multiple religious practices and retellings of ancient stories.

Origin of the Evergreen Christmas Tree

Even though the feast day of Adam and Eve holds significant weight, the Catholics have another story for its origin, one that explains why we use the evergreen fir rather than the oak or palm leaves.

During the 8th century St. Boniface, an English missionary, happened upon an oak tree where a religious ceremony was being performed for their God, Thor. Boniface took an ax to the oak, and when Thor did not strike him down, pointed his new pagan converts to the evergreen as a symbol of the Christian God’s everlasting love. A year later, those same converts came and celebrated their new faith by decorating the evergreen. This story ties in neatly the pagan roots of tree worship with today’s traditional use of the evergreen.

The simple truth is that as faiths and people groups intermingled, traditions and stories spilled into one another, creating common ground. This is seen most clearly in how our celebration of Christmas today evolved from many of ancient Rome’s traditions during the feast of Saturnalia.

The Christmas Tree Tradition & How It Came To America

Whether a marketing gimmick created by a bunch of bakers or an amplification of an important religious feast day, the fact is, the tradition caught on. Paradise Trees adorned with sweet treats, candles, flowers, and colored paper were popular holiday home decor throughout Germany and France by 1605.

German settlers would later bring the Christmas Tree to the US though Puritans refused to join in because of the tradition’s pagan roots. Puritans even went so far as banning Christmas and closing their churches on December 25th. The first reported Christmas Tree to be displayed in the US didn’t happen until the 1830s. Still, it didn’t catch on in the States until the Royals set the precedence in England.

In 1848 Prince Albert brought the tradition to England when he placed a decorated tree in Buckingham Palace. The picture was altered to look American and published two years later in Godey’s Lady’s Book which helped popularize the tradition. (Britannica)

What Does a Christmas Tree Mean

If history has taught us anything, it’s that the Christmas Tree does not belong to one group or one set of beliefs. Instead, it belongs to many.

The Christmas Tree that you place in your home might be a symbol of your faith, of family tradition, or simply a way to celebrate the season.

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