The Christmas tree is iconic throughout the world during the celebration of Christmas, but where did this tradition come from? When did people adopt this custom and how did it become so popular in almost every corner of the world? It appears that the habit of using evergreen trees and branches comes from ancient times, as they were used in various rituals. Tree worshiping was not uncommon among the Pagan civilizations of Europe, who lived millennia ago. It appears that the Scandinavian people used to set up trees for Christmas to invite birds to sing near their homes in this period and used the branches of evergreen trees to decorate their homes and barns at the New Year, as it was believed that they chased away bad spirits.
The Romans, Chinese, Egyptians, and Hebrews also had rituals with evergreen branches, which they believed symbolized eternal life. Many think that the modern Christmas trees come from the Viking and Saxon habits of worshiping trees, during winter rites before the emergence of Christianity. The Germans also had such practices around the 8th century, as illustrated in the folk story of Saint Boniface, who cut the Donar’s Oak and planted an evergreen tree in the same place later on.
The first modern Christmas tree may very well have appeared in early modern Germany, during the Renaissance period. It is also believed that Martin Luther added lighted candles to an evergreen tree in the 16th century, representing the first decorations of such a tree in history. Some think that the habit of using Christmas trees during Christmas may come from medieval plays, when Christmas Eve was considered to be the Feast Day of Adam and Eve, the Paradise Tree being depicted by an evergreen tree decorated with fruits. But because these plays started to be banned in the 16th century, many people began to recreate the “paradise trees” in their homes. They were decorated with round pastry wafers, representing the Eucharist, which later turned into cookie ornaments, very common in Germany when it comes to decorating the Christmas tree.
Often, near the Christmas tree, people used to set up wooden pyramids where they placed candles, in some places one candle for each member of the family. In time, the candles from these pyramids moved onto the trees, so the first lighting ornaments may have appeared in this way. It took a while for Christmas trees to be associated with Christmas gifts. It is said that, in Christian belief, the Magi brought gifts to the newborn Jesus, as a sign of gratitude. The first customers of exchanging gifts existed since the days of the Romans, who used to do this during the winter’s solstice. But, because it was considered an Epiphany in the early days of Christianity, it was forbidden. The practice reappeared within families in the time of Luther, although gift exchanging was done in secret. But, when they started to be associated with St. Nicholas, gift exchanging and placing gifts under the Christmas tree, the practice became more and more popular.
While the Christmas tree has not come from a clearly defined point, it can be said that the tradition has been around for thousands of years. Starting as a pagan ritual and later adopted by Christianity, Christmas trees have a long history from their natural origins of a simple branch to the highly ornamented trees we know today.