The History of the Christmas Tree

Johansen_Viggo_-_Radosne_Boże_NarodzenieI have a rather eclectic Christmas tree. On its boughs hang a collection of ornaments ranging from some my husband made as a child to those I made in the early days of our marriage to those my children made. Some ornaments were received as gifts, while others were bought to commemorate a special occasion. Interspersed among them are brightly colored lights. With the nativity scene underneath and the angel on top, the scene is complete. In many ways this tree tells the story of our lives together. It would never appear in any home decorating magazine, but I have come to love its uniqueness.

Reflecting on our own Christmas symbol got me wondering about how the custom of Christmas trees began. As it turns out, the tradition of decorating homes with evergreens predates the Christmas celebration. Some ancient peoples believed that evergreen boughs could keep away evil spirits. Others felt that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god was sick. The coming of the winter solstice (with the corresponding lengthening of days) was celebrated because it meant the sun god was getting better. Evergreens served as a reminder that spring would indeed come.

Legend holds that St. Boniface was the first to co-opt the tradition for Christianity in the 8th century. He was attempting to convert the Druids who worshipped oak trees as the symbol of their idol. He instead offered the balsam fir tree, using its triangular shape to describe the Trinity and the fact that his evergreen boughs pointed to heaven, as a symbol of God.

Martin Luther is credited with bringing the popularity of the Christmas tree to Germany. Out on a winter evening one night composing a sermon, he was awed by the beauty of the stars. When he returned home, he attempted to recreate the beauty for his family by putting candles on an evergreen tree in his home.

Christmas trees, like most Christmas traditions other than Church services, were adopted late in America. The Puritans frowned on all such “pagan” traditions. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts made any observance of Christmas other than a church service a penal offense. It wasn’t until an influx of German and Irish immigrants came in the 19th century that the Puritan legacy was undermined. In 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who was German) were pictured in the London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. As a result, the popularity of Christmas trees soared, both in England and America. By 1920, the custom was almost universal.

While the Christmas tree tradition may have began as a more secular tradition, today we can firmly claim the symbol as a Christian one. Many families bless their Christmas trees and as www.catholiceducation.org/ points out, the symbol of a tree has deep roots in our faith. “We are reminded that our first parents were not allowed to eat from one tree, and that Christ paid the great price for our redemption by hanging on a tree.” In addition, the evergreen boughs and the lights that decorate them do remind us that Christ is the light of the world and that His light is everlasting. He has come to bring joy and light into our dark world.

Christmas Tree Blessing

Lord God,
May the presence of this tree remind us of your gift of everlasting life.
May its light keep us mindful of the light you brought into the world.
May the joy and peace of Christmas fill our hearts.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on CE on Dec 20, 2007. 

image: Glade jul by Viggo Johansen/Wikimedia Commons

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

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Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur writes from western Massachusetts where she lives with her husband and two sons. A Senior Editor with Catholic Lane.com, she blogs at http://spiritualwomanthoughts.blogspot.com

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