Christmas trees are a beloved tradition for people all over the world, symbolizing the end of the year and the joy of the holiday season. Long thought of as a religious symbol, it may come as a surprise that the earliest origin of the Christmas tree dates back to ancient, paganistic rituals.
In many ancient cultures throughout Europe and the Middle East, evergreen trees and garlands symbolized eternal life. Pine and fir trees were commonly worshiped and revered as sacred icons of prosperity and health. The Scandinavians also hung evergreen garlands and wreaths around their homes and outbuildings to scare away the Devil and get the new year started on the right foot.
The winter solstice, which falls on December 21 or 22, is the shortest day and longest night of the year. People in ancient cultures believed that their worship of the sun god and celebration of the winter solstice encouraged the god, who became weak in winter, to get well and make the days longer again. Evergreens, as a symbol of life and the promise of summer, were an important part of solstice celebrations.
The ancient Egyptians, staunch worshipers of the sun god (Ra), filled their homes with green palms to welcome Ra’s returning strength and his victory over death. The early Romans also celebrated the solstice with a feast christened “Saturnalia,” to honor the god of agriculture, Saturn. The people decorated their homes and temples with evergreen branches to celebrate the impending spring weather and planting season.
Christmas trees, as they are known today, date back to the 16th century when German
Christians decorated trees inside their homes. The famous Protestant reformer Martin Luther is often credited as the first person to add lights to an indoor evergreen tree.
The tradition came to the United States in 1776 when General George Washington defeated the German Hessians who, as history tells it, were distracted with their Christmas celebration and not focused on the impending battle. Washington’s troops crept into the Hessian camp and easily overtook the German soldiers. After the war was over, many Germans remained in the United States and shared their Christmas traditions, including decorated evergreen trees, with their fellow Americans.
While the earliest trees in American history may have been sparsely decorated, the Christmas trees of the British monarchy were quite the opposite by the mid-1800s. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a large tree brought to Windsor Castle each year, which they then decorated with lights, gingerbread, and other decadent finishes, before inviting the children of London to come in and admire it. It is said that Victoria and Albert’s Christmas trees led to the popularization of the elaborately decorated trees of modern times.
Today, the Christmas tree is the focal point of many holiday traditions, both secular and Christian. One of the most well-known tree lighting ceremonies takes place at Rockefeller Center in New York City each year. Hundreds of thousands of people gather outside the famed ice rink to listen to live music, sip hot chocolate, and celebrate the coming holiday season with the lighting of the world’s most famous Norway Spruce.
Christmas trees symbolize many different things to different cultures, but one thing is universally true: people from all over the world have come together for centuries to celebrate new life and hope under the glowing lights of a simple evergreen tree.