Look up into the midnight sky and watch for the twinkle of stars through the branches of an evergreen. This just might be the inspiration for how we came to know and celebrate the beauty of a Christmas tree. Of course the story of Martin Luther’s walk home in the 16th century and his brush with a celestial vision that saw him bringing a tree home to share the same vision with his family is just one version of where our traditional Christmas trees come from. The history of our humble Christmas tree is long and varied, depending upon who you ask.
The Christmas tree as envisioned by Martin Luther is a beautiful tale. It isn’t hard to see how lights strung in a tree are reminiscent of stars in the sky. Lights and trees have been part of celebrations in December for longer than Martin Luther’s time though.
In Ancient Egyptian times, the solstice was celebrated with green palms draped around people’s homes. Light won over darkness, symbolic of life over death. The greenery was linked to life.
Ancient Romans held celebrations very similar to our modern North American Christmas culture. Again, the solstice was celebrated, but for them the celebration was called Saturnalia—in the name of Saturn, God of agriculture. Houses were decorated in evergreen boughs, lights were lit and presents were exchanged. The evergreens were proof that the sun would return and new harvest would again grace tables in the future.
Northern Europe also marked the solstice and its promise of life returning once more. Evergreen tree branches, holly, and mistletoe all featured into Druid celebrations that marked the shortest day of the year, but a promise of longer days and life to come.
All of these ancient celebrations predate Christianity, but focus on the idea of life, a return of the sun, and the use of greenery which symbolically withstands the rigours of winter. These pagan beliefs may have faded with time, but our modern celebrations certainly stem from them to a certain extent. And even before Martin Luther brought the first tree indoors, evergreen boughs decorated the outside of many homes in Europe.
One of the early ‘trees’ that predate modern Christmas trees were known as Paradise trees. They were made of a pyramid of wood and decorated with evergreens, fruit, and candles. They were often transported around towns from house to house on Christmas Eve to celebrate the feast of Adam and Eve.
Once Christmas trees came indoors, traditional decorations were edible items like apples, nuts, and gingerbread. Candles added that sparkle that Martin Luther envisaged, but sometimes proved to be a fire hazard. It wasn’t until the popularity of Christmas trees spread to North America at the end of the 1800s, and electricity became widespread, that candles were replaced by Christmas lights on trees. And while all manner of ornaments adorn North American Christmas trees now, Europeans often still favour the more traditional items like tinsel, popcorn strings, apples, berries and nuts.
Whether you have a strong religious affiliation or not though, Christmas trees have stood the test of time. The evergreen is symbolic of life, even in the midst of the dark days of winter, and most would agree that hope is a good thing. So whether you hang an evergreen bough along your mantel, decorate your home with a tree and fruits and nuts, or simply enjoy the soft glow of candles to break the dark days of winter, we wish you all a Merry Christmas.
May your spirits be bright this holiday season.