The Christmas tree today is a common custom for most of us who believe in celebrating Christmas. It’s one of the objects that make Christmas real as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Even though there are various interesting connections to ancient traditions such as pagan Egyptian and Roman customs, early Christian practices, and Victorian melancholy, decorating the Christmas tree has been adopted as a Christian practice for years. However, most scholars point to Germany as being the origin of the Christmas tree.
One of the earliest stories relating back to Germany is about Saint Boniface. In 722, he encountered some pagans who were about to sacrifice a child at the base of a huge oak tree. He cut down the tree to prevent the sacrifice and a Fir tree grew up at the base of the oak. He then told everyone that this lovely evergreen, with its branches pointing to heaven, was a holy tree - the tree of the Christ child, and a symbol of His promise of eternal life.
Another story from Germany is about Queen Victoria who often visited relatives in Germany. While she was there, she fell in love with Prince Albert. After they were married, they moved back to England to raise their family. Prince Albert decorated a tree and ever since that time, the English, because of their love for their Queen, copied her Christmas customs including the Christmas tree and ornaments. This story took place in the 19th century, around 1830.
Another story about the origin of the Christmas tree says that late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope that spring would soon come.
Legend also has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. The story says that on one Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of snow glistened trees. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. This made him go back home, and set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth.
Some people trace the origin of the Christmas tree to an earlier period. Even before the Christian era, trees and boughs were used for ceremonials. Egyptians, in celebrating the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) brought green date palms into their homes as a symbol of “life triumphant over death.” When the Romans observed the feast of saturn, part of the ceremony was the raising of an evergreen bough. The early Scandinavians were said to have paid homage to the fir tree.
However, more research evidence points to the Paradise tree (the one with the forbidden fruit). This story goes back to the 11th century religious plays. One of the most popular was the Paradise Play. The play depicted the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from Paradise. The only prop on the stage was the Paradise tree, a fir tree adorned with apples. The play would end with the promise of the coming Savior and His Incarnation. The people had grown so accustomed to the Paradise tree, that they began putting their own Paradise tree up in their homes on December 24 (today’s Christmas Eve).
Whatever legend you wish to believe, trees and branches can be made purposeful as well as symbolic. In this case, the Christmas tree is a symbol of a living Christmas spirit that adds into our lives pleasant memories of the past and anticipation for the future.
However, we all need to remember that Christmas is the time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Whatever the origin of the Christmas tree is, it cannot change this fact.