When I experienced my first American winter, at age 5, I was mesmerized by the evergreens dressed up in baubles and lights. The foreign fir captured my heart. But my ammu said, “Christmas trees are for Christians.” I wondered what trees had to do with God and focused on the facts, “But Santa won’t come!” My persistence paid off, I secured a one-foot prickly plastic pine and a popcorn garland that winter.
Not much has changed, I still love the facts. This is what I found: evergreens are an ancient symbol of rebirth and everlasting life. It was eventually adopted by Christians as a symbol of Christ’s rebirth. Today, American courts have ruled it a secular symbol, along with Santa and reindeer. This is where thousands of years have brought us. I wonder where we will go in the next thousand years?
c. 3000 BCE
Ancient Egyptians celebrated the winter solstice by filling their homes with green palm fronds that symbolized rebirth, in honor of the god Ra.
c. 2000 BCE
Celtic Druids decorated evergreen trees with fruits, nuts, and coins during the onset of winter to ensure a fruitful coming year. In these ancient cultures (as in many cultures worldwide), trees (especially evergreen) were venerated as symbols of nature’s cycle of rebirth.
c. 510 BCE
Ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice with the festival of Saturnalia by decorating their homes and temples with evergreens to celebrate life and rebirth.
4th century CE:
The Vikings decorated with evergreen trees and wreaths to ward off the evil spirits they associated with the winter solstice. In ancient Germanic and Norse tradition, the evergreens were decorated with small carvings of the gods and food, encouraging the tree spirits to return to bring the new spring.
6th century CE:
The Book of Jeremiah, from the King James Bible, spoke of decorated trees as a heathen/pagan practice. The heathens in question were the Celtics and the offense was idolatry. In Celtic tradition, tree spirits were worshipped.
Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen …. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree …. (10:1-5, King James Version)
16th century CE:
German Christians celebrated Christmas in their homes with evergreen trees to symbolize Christ’s triumph over death. They combined the burning of the Yule log with the decorated tree. During this time, Adam and Eve day was also an important holiday, which celebrated the story of creation. Some collected evergreen branches or trees and brought them to their homes, these evergreens were initially called ‘paradise trees’ and decorated with apples.
It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century German Christian leader, first added lighted candles to a tree. History.com shares, “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.”
19th century CE:
In the early 19th century, Christmas trees spread to European nobility. An image of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert has been widely credited with creating the Christmas tree craze among the more general population. She also popularized opening presents on Christmas day. Prior they were opened on New Year’s Eve.
20th century CE:
In 1984, a United States Supreme Court case (Lynch v. Donnelly) ruled the Christmas tree was a secular symbol of the holidays, along with Santa Claus and reindeer. The presence of a Christmas tree can actually neutralize the existence of religious displays in public spaces. It’s actually referred to as “the reindeer rule.” The infectious nature of the tradition continues, with the advent of the Hanukkah bush and Ramadan crescent moon tree. Today, Christmas trees are a two billion dollar industry.
Decorating evergreens during the winter, take it or leave it. It will continue to be a symbol of winter magic in our home.
Peace & Salam,
The Horticultural Society of New York “Plants of the Winter Solstice”
Antiquity Now “The History of the Holiday Evergreen”
History “History of the Christmas Tree”