Christmas tree in Kyiv, 2019
Credit - KressInsel, CC SA 4.0
Long before the start of Christianity, trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter.
Today, people decorate their homes with pine, spruce, and fir trees during the festive season, but ancient people also hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows at the beginning of the winter solstice, which happens to come this year on December 21.
For the ancient Egyptians, winter was a time when their sun god, Ra was ill and weak, according to History.com. After the solstice, Ra would slowly start glowing brighter and stronger, and an evergreen’s immortality symbolized the triumph of life over death.
Saturnalia by Antoine Callet, Circe 1783. Public Domain
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the winter solstice meant that soon, farms and orchards would be green and fruitful.
The Egyptians and Romans weren’t the only ones bringing green plants indoors, though. In Scandinavia, the Vikings believed evergreens were special gifts from Balder, their god of light and peace.
The Druids, an ancient Celtic priesthood, started bringing evergreens into the home around the 8th century, reports The Washington Post. Before that time, the Druids worshipped the oak tree, but Benedictine monk, St. Boniface, a man who devoted his life to converting pagans, offered the Druids a triangular-shaped fir tree as a symbol of the Trinity, and it went on to replace their beloved oaks.
Steel engraving of Martin Luther’s Christmas Tree, from Sartain’s Magazine, circa 1860, Public Domain
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes.
It is widely believed that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens.
To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
An 1888 German family celebrates Christmas, Internet Archive Book Images, Public Domain
Christmas trees come to North America
Most 18th and 19th-century Americans thought Christmas trees were odd, and many people believed they reeked of paganism. According to Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, the Plymouth Colony governor called it a “pagan mockery,” and the general court of Massachusetts even implemented a law in 1659 that banned any observance of December 25 that wasn’t a church service — including decorations.
It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that the strict Puritan beliefs and laws gave way to celebrating Christmas with a decorated tree, thanks to the many German and Irish people who came to our shores.
Then US first lady Melania Trump toured Christmas decorations at the White House in 2017 – Copyright AFP Saeed KHAN
By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from the floor to the ceiling.
German settlers migrated to Canada from the United States in the 1700s. They brought with them many of the things associated with Christmas we cherish today—Advent calendars, gingerbread houses, cookies—and Christmas trees.
When Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, the Christmas tree became a tradition throughout England, the United States, and Canada.