They have become a symbol of Christmas around the world. You probably have one, sitting in the corner of your house, festooned with fairy lights, and all manner of decorations, but what has a tree to do with the birth of Jesus Christ?
The answer, it turns out, is not a thing. Although the Christmas tree is identified with a Christian festival, its origins are in fact secular.
For the modern origins of the Christmas tree, as a symbol of Christianity, however, you have to say, danke schon, thank you, to Germany.
It is the Germans, who in the 16th Century, first popularised a tree around Christmas time. The “Paradise Tree” was a prop, in a medieval mystery play, Adam and Eve, whose name day are celebrated on the 24th of December.
The tree was decorated with apples, representing the forbidden fruit, and wafers, representing the Eucharist, and redemption. Like the nativity crib, the Paradise Tree, would move from the theatre into people’s homes.
Today, trees are extravagantly decorated, and Christmas presents left at their base. It is an image that has come to define Christmas.
In some ways, the ornate decorations have lost the symbolisms, although it is difficult to find a Christmas tree, without round objects, representing the original apples.
In the 19th Century, the tradition found its way around the Royal Houses of Europe. In Britain for instance, the Christmas tree took root, following the marriage of Queen Victoria, to the German, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Some of the most lavishly decorated Christmas trees adorn the homes and outdoors of North America, where the tradition was popularised by German settlers.
But the Christmas trees’ roots go much farther in history.
The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews, used evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands, to symbolise eternal life. In pre-Christian Europe, evergreens were brought into the house, to scare away the devil, but also as a symbol of the flowering of nature, after a long winter.
But it is from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, to honour the agricultural god, Saturn, that many Christmas rituals, including the Christmas tree, spring.
The festival was the most important, and jolliest holiday, for the Romans. All work came to a halt, as people attended raucous parties. Even slaves were allowed to participate, in some instances, sitting at the head of the table, to be served by their masters. The Roman poet, Catullus, described the festival, as “the best of times.”
For the author Pliny, however, who is said to have constructed a soundproof room, so he could continue to work through the riotous festivities, it was clearly, the most inconvenient of times.
Almost every home was decorated with wreaths and other types of greenery. Gifts were exchanged, most commonly, Cerei, wax taper candles, which signified the return of light in the spring, after the winter solstice.
Even the date on which Christmas is celebrated, the 25th of December, was the day on which Saturnalia was held. In fact, for a time, in the early days of Christianity, the two festivals coexisted, albeit uneasily, until, Christmas supplanted Saturnalia.
In parts of the world, for a few days in the year, outdoor Christmas trees have become so iconic, as to become part of the landscape.
In London’s Trafalgar, a 20 minute spruce is raised every year, having travelled from Norway, to England. It is a tradition going back to World War II. In 942, resistance fighter Mons Urangsvag, is reported to have cut down a pine tree, and sent it to England, as a Christmas gift, for the then exiled Norwegian King, Haakon.
The tradition has continued since then, with Norway sending the tree, as a thank you to British forces, for their contribution, to Norway’s resistance against the Nazis.
Capitol Hill, Washington DC, Moscow’s Red Square, Vilnius in Lithuania, to name but a few, would be unthinkable, without a gigantic Christmas tree in their respective central squares.
With greater environmental awareness, of course, for every tree that is cut, several more are planted.