Celebrating Our Roots: the Origins of the Christmas Tree
We have all experienced that moment, sipping champagne and devouring hors d’oeuvres at an extravagant Christmas party whilst ‘All I want for Christmas’ is blasting through the speakers…thinking to ourselves, what are we actually celebrating?
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherd, Sassetti Chapel altarpiece, 1485, tempera and oil on panel, 167 x 167 cm, Santa Trinità, Florence.
Nowadays, the holidays are a time of year during which we focus on friends and family, creating warmth and togetherness and showing our appreciation for each other by buying gifts and cooking up lavish meals. Somewhere in the midst of unwrapping presents, sugar overdosing and avoiding our awkwardly drunk relatives, we also take a moment to remember the birth of Jesus Christ.
Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape with Church, 1811, oil on canvas, 33 x 45 cm, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Dortmund.
The truth is that, regardless of what kind of diet you are on or what religion you identify yourself with, cultures in the Northern hemisphere have been celebrating in the month of December for many centuries. The customs that we now consider to be inseparable from Christmas can actually tell us much more about how our traditions evolved throughout the years…starting with the most popular of them all: the tree!
It all started in the European Iron Age, somewhere around the 1st century BC, when the Germanic Pagans marked the winter solstice with midwinter festivities, also known as the Yuletide.
Spiritual seekers from all over the world still gather at Stonehenge every year to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Photo: Robert Koorenny.
These ancient peoples considered the evergreen fir tree to be a symbol of fertility. As the days in winter shortened, the animals went into hibernation and plants and trees slowly died, fir trees remained alive and evergreen. Though to have magical powers, they were cut down and brought into homes and temples to be worshipped alongside the Gods.
Thomas Couture, Romans during the Decadence, 1847, oil on canvas, 427 x 722 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Decorated trees also formed an important part of the Roman Saturnalia celebrations, which took place up until the early third century AD. During this feast, Saturn, the god of agriculture, would be honoured in the hopes of a good harvest year. For the occasion, large trees were decorated with ornaments of Bacchus (the god of fertility) and with candles (symbolizing the sun god Sol). The romans also put up wreaths inside of their homes for the occasion.
The Beginning of a Christian Tradition
Another theory on how the evergreen fir tree became a popular symbol is offered by the legend of Boniface, an English monk that travelled to Germany as a missionary in the 8th century. He reportedly witnessed German pagans worshipping an oak tree which they considered to be sacred, known as Donar's Oak and thought to be located somewhere near Hessen.
Bernhard Rode, Boniface chops down a cult tree in Hessen, engraving, 1781, location unknown.
To convert them, Saint Boniface cut down the tree in order to prove that nothing bad would happen. Instead, an evergreen tree is said to have grown out of its remnants. This legend gave birth to the idea that the fir tree should be a symbol of Christianity, supported by its triangular shape.
The Medieval Tree
Fast forward to the middle ages, during which Christians celebrated the Feast of Adam and Eve. Around the 12th century, a custom of reenacting the Paradise Play on December 24th was established. The paradise tree obviously plays a large role in the story of Adam and Eve, representing the Garden of Eden.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1526, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.
Therefore, a large evergreen tree (it was winter after all), decorated with red apples, was placed on center stage. Even though this custom vanished, people in Germany and France continued to place fir trees in their homes, decorating them with apples and white wafers, symbolic of the Eucharist (redemption).
We encounter most of the roots of our current tree tradition in 16th century Germany and thereafrer. Legend has it that it was the German Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) who declared the evergreen fir tree to be the symbol for the birth of Jesus Christ, but there are no official records left to prove this. However, the first recorded sale of Christmas trees dates back to the Alsace in 1576, found in the archives of the Humanist library in Sélestat.
Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, ca. 1532, oil on wood, 33,3 x 23,3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The more fashionable and richly decorated version of the Christmas tree entered the living room in the 19th century, when the nobility introduced the custom into their homes. Amongst them was the Protestant princess Henriette of Nassau-Weilburg (1797-1829), who brought the idea to Vienna in 1816.
Top: Princess Henriette of Nassau-Wilbrug, ca. 1815, oil on canvas, location unknown. And: Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle, from The Illustrated London News Christmas Supplement, 1848.
The trend quickly caught on all over continental Europe. Prince Albert, who married Queen Victoria, also helped introduce the idea to the UK. However, it took the Catholic church until 1982 to allow a Christmas tree to be placed by the Vatican, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II.
A Christmas Tree at the Vatican. Photo: Getty Images.
Even though the relationships between ancient customs and Christian-inspired traditions are not officially acknowledged, there’s no denying the similarities. In this global day and age, such a common origin should offer a comforting thought!