A few years ago, a friend of mine asked me why we put up Christmas trees since the origins of the Christmas tree were pagan? I knew some of the history behind Christmas trees and had heard that before so I wasn’t surprised by his question. But it was still a question worth pursuing. Here is what I learned over the past couple of years.
Evergreen trees in and of themselves have been seen as ancient symbols of life especially during the winter season. In the Greco-Roman culture, Roman citizens would often decorate their homes with trees with the purpose to celebrate the winter season and to honor their pagan gods. The early Church was a mixed bad on the practice. Some Christians who came out of pagan religions would distance themselves from trees since the religious significance was pagan. But others did not.
In fact by the early Middle Ages, Christian missionaries sent to the pagan Germanic people would use the Evergreen tree as a symbol to explain the Incarnation of Christ and that His rule included all of creation–including trees! At the same time they would condemn pagan practices that ‘worshiped’ trees. One legend has it that the 8th Century missionary Boniface cut down an oak tree that was considered sacred and used for human sacrifice. In turn he used the Fir Tree as a symbol of the love and mercy of God.
Trees Reclaimed for Christmas
The practice of putting up trees to celebrate Christmas really didn’t begin until the 1500’s. Legend has it that Martin Luther was the one who introduced this practice to the church but there is little historical evidence to support such a notion.
The most likely beginning of the ‘Christmas Tree’ would have been in theatrical dramas during the late Middle Ages that depicted biblical themes. Plays that celebrated the Nativity were often linked back to Genesis since the church, during this time, celebrated Christmas Eve as a feast Day that highlighted Creation. Thus the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a tree hung with fruit (the picture you see inserted to the right is a painting by local artist Katy Glover). From these plays, families picked up on the symbolism and repeated this symbolism in their homes. The earliest Christmas Trees were then referred to as ‘Paradises.’ These ‘Paradises’ were often hung with round pastry wafers which also symbolized the Eucharist (FYI – this developed into the cookie ornament and ‘Christmas cookies’ that are still celebrated to this day!).
The lights that hung on Christmas trees were also a practice that began in the church around the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. Churches began to place Christmas trees in the sanctuary as a symbol of Christ being the true Tree of Life. The candles that were placed on the trees represented families who were a part of the church or perhaps as a remembrance of families in great need. Thus the birth of our modern day Christmas tree lights and ornaments. Who amongst us doesn’t have a ‘special ornament’ or a ‘family ornament’ on the tree each year? You have the historic church to thank for that practice!
Each year as most of us make trees a major part of our Christmas season we would do well to remember that they are ultimately symbolic of the One who gave Himself to bridge the gap between God and Man and seeks to reclaim not only pagan symbols but all of Creation as His own!