Christmas Tree TraditionsThere are many myths and legends about how the Christmas tree came to be the most significant decoration to represent the Christmas holidays. But questions arise as to whether the trees are an appropriate symbol for Christians to have in their homes. Were the first Christmas trees rooted in paganism? And what significance do those colorful decorations hold? Good questions, so let’s see if we can find some of these Christmas tree roots, (figuratively) and dispel the myths to discover the truth about this tradition…
First, we know the Holy Land is desolate and contains few forests, (other than in Lebanon where magnificent cedars grow in abundance.) Palms, olive, and various fruit trees such as fig were the norm when Jesus walked the Earth, and remain so to this day. So why then are Douglas Fir, Scotch Pine, Balsam, Blue Spruce, and Eastern Hemlock are the favored trees to represent Christmas, both in America and other countries?
In Europe, evergreens were said to symbolize the rebirth in ancient times. Egyptians brought palm branches into their homes at winter solstice as a symbol of life’s triumph over death. Romans decorated with evergreens during Saturnalia, a winter festival celebrating agriculture. And northern Europeans hung prickly pine branches over doorways to ward off demons during pagan solstice celebrations they called Jul—beginning in early November and lasting two full months. Also, the sacred trees of the Druids and Norsemen were deciduous oaks, not evergreens. So you see there actually were some pagan beliefs and traditions connected to decorating with bows and greenery from trees of old.
From the 11th century, religious plays were called, ‘Mystery Plays’ and included the popular ‘Paradise Play’ depicting the story of creation in the Garden of Eden. The logical choice for a lush green tree (during winter months when the plays were held) was an evergreen tree with apples tied on it’s branches to represent sin—Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Later small white wafers were added to the evergreen to symbolize forgiveness of sin. In so doing, the tree was not only representing the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ but also, the ‘Tree of Life.’ This resulted in the very old European custom of decorating a fir tree inside the home with apples and pastry wafers symbolizing the Holy Eucharist at Christmastime. The pastries progressed in time from simple round disks to shapes in the form of angels, stars, hearts, flowers, and bells. In addition to the Paradise Tree, many German Christians would set up a Christmas pyramid called a Lichstock. This was an open framed triangle with shelves for figurines of the nativity. It was covered in evergreen bows and decorated with a star at its peak, candles, fruits, candies, and pastries— each having a particular biblical meaning:
1) Star…the star of Bethlehem
2) Candles…light of Christ’s birth
3) Evergreens…eternal life
4) Sweets…goodness of Christ
5) Fruit…fruits of the spirit
By the 17th century, the Lichstock and Paradise Tree merged, bringing the decorated Christmas tree into modern times. The traditions behind today’s Christmas trees actually became popularized in 1800 to 1846 when Queen Victoria and her (German) Prince Albert, were illustrated in the London News with their children circled ‘round a decorated Christmas tree. In America, the White House soon followed suit with decorated Christmas trees during the Franklin Pierce presidency. Despite some congregational protests concerning Christmas trees representing pagan ritual, the tradition was quickly adopted as a symbol of Christ’s advent—God sending His only begotten Son to bring peace and eternal life to a fallen world. Thus, Christmas trees seen in this way may still point to the One true light of the World…
Legend of the Upside-down Christmas tree…Legend has it about this truth of history, (at one time, decorated trees were hung upside down from ceilings) that in the 7th century, a monk from Devonshire, England traveled to Germany to spread the gospel. Once there, he spent time in Thuringia—an area that would eventually become the industry capital of Christmas tree decorations. The legend goes on to tell us this monk used the triangle shape of the fir tree as a replica of the trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Christians then began to revere the fir tree as God’s Holy Tree like the people of this region had previously thought of the mighty oak. By the 12th century it is noted, the trees were being hung upside-down from ceilings at Christmastime in most of central Europe to symbolize Christianity. Weird huh? But hold on, there’s more…
Another legend is of St. Boniface, a missionary who took matters into his own hands in order to stop sacrifices being brought to a sacred oak in Geismear. He chopped this tree down in the year 725 AD. Low and behold, in time a fir tree grew from the oak’s stump (most likely from a seed that blew in and lodged in one of the crevices in the old stump.) St. Boniface told the people that this beautiful young evergreen with branches reaching toward the heavens was indeed a Holy Tree, tree of the Christ Child, a symbol of His promise of eternal life. He then instructed his followers to go into the winter forest and collect a fir tree for every home, and decorate each with gifts—a symbol of love and kindness toward one another. He was some powerful storyteller, huh?
By the 1600’s, many German towns and cities were celebrating the winter holidays with decorated trees. Christmas markets soon became popular during this season, providing special foods, gifts, and decorations. Even visitors to the region readily found wax ornaments and gingerbreads to buy as souvenirs and take back to their home countries to be hung on their own Christmas trees. Such a tourist at Strasbourg, Germany in 1601 recorded he saw a Christmas tree decorated with wafers, sugar-twists, and flowers in various colors. By the end of the 1600’s, many communities in Alsace began to limit the cutting of evergreens for the winter holiday in order to protect the forest from being completely depleted. (No wonder they started Christmas tree farms in this country.)
Christmas trees continued to grow in popularity in the 1700’s and 1800’s, particularly among German Lutherans who eventually immigrated to England and the United States. The tree finally found its feet and was decorated standing on its stump rather than hanging from the ceiling. It has pointed to the heavens every since.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine an upside-down tree in my living room, gaily decorated with gifts piled on the floor below it. Guess I’ll stick to this latest tradition and keep mine right side up!
Written by Granny Tam
Merry Christmas Traditions