A History of Christmas Trees

Contrary to some reports, the Christmas tree was not a Victorian invention of the 1860s. Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries people believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.

In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient peoples believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and who wore the sun as a blazing disc in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes that symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.

Across the Mediterranean Sea, the early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice means that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. The Saturnalia was a special time of peace and equality when wars could not be declared, when slaves and masters could eat at the same table, and when gifts were exchanged as a symbol of affection and brotherhood.

In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life.

The fierce Vikings in Scandanavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder. Many historians believe that our word for Yule came from the Norse word, "rol", the Gothic word, "hiul", or the Saxon word, "hweol". All of these mean wheel and refer to the cycles of the sun.

When families bring home their Christmas tree from a sales lot or a choose-and-cut farm, they are following a tradition that is more than a thousand years old. "Bringing in the Yule log" was a ritual that began in Great Britain and spread throughout Europe, eventually reaching North America. On Christmas Eve the large central trunk of a great tree was dragged from the forest. Everyone in the family, both children and adults, helped with the job by pulling on the ropes. When the log was finally brought into the house, it was thrown into the family fireplace where it burned for the 12 days of Christmas.

Many superstitions surrounded the log: it had to be ignited the first time a flame was put to it or bad luck would surely follow; it had to be lit with a stick saved from the fire from the previous year or the house would burn down; and, unless charcoal from the great fire was kept under the family beds for the following year, the house might be struck by lightning.

As the Yule log tradition spread through Europe, it acquired many customs and many names. In Ireland it was called "bloc na Nodleg" or Christmas block. In Spain children followed the log as it was dragged through the village beating it with sticks to drive out evil spirits; they were rewarded with gifts of nuts and chocolates by people who lived long the way. In the Balkan areas of Europe, women decorated the log with red silk, gold wire, evergreen needles and flowers before it was thrown into the fire.

Hardly anyone burns a Yule log anymore, but some memories of it remain.

In French homes, instead of Christmas cake, children enjoy a rich chocolate roll covered with dark brown frosting that looks just like bark. Sometimes the "buche de Noel", or Christmas log, is decorated with frosted berries and holly, or with marzipan mushrooms, as a reminder of the great logs that were once dragged from the forest.

In the fourteenth century, when hardly anyone knew how to read, churches held "miracle plays" to tell the people in towns and villages stories from the Bible. Special plays were held according to the early Christian Calendar of Saints. The play for December 24, which was Adam and Eve's Day, was about the Garden of Eden. The play showed how Eve was tempted by the serpent, how she picked the forbidden fruit, and how the couple was expelled from Paradise.

The time of year that the play was held created a problem for the actors and organizers. How to find an apple tree with green needles on it in the middle of winter. In Germany the problem was solved by tying apples onto a cut spruce or pine. As well, the tree was hung with round white wafers to remind the audience that even though Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, the birth of the baby Jesus would bring redemption.

The idea of a Christmas tree hung with apples charmed people in Germany. Before long, families were setting up Paradeisbaum, or Paradise trees, in their homes. The custom persisted long after the miracle plays were no longer performed. Ever since, red and green have been the official colors of this festive season.

As years passed, the trees were loaded with many more things to eat besides apples. Gilded nuts, gingerbread cookies, and marzipan candies shaped like fruits and vegetables were hung from the boughs. Brightly decorated eggshells, cut in half and filled with tiny candies were set in the tree like birdnests.

Some began calling these "sugar trees". On the Twelfth Night of Christmas, January 6, when it was believed the Magi arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts, the tree was shaken and the children finally were allowed to eat the sweets that fell from the tree.

The wafers once hung on the Paradise tree were replaced with cookies in the form of hearts, bells, angels, and stars. With time, perhaps because so many decorations were eaten before the tree was taken down, they became replaced with tin and painted metal. Families in colder climates combined the decorations with the candles on the conifer tree and created the Christmas tree found in homes today.

The above is presented for your information and enjoyment by the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario and the generous courtesy of Ross Gough, Executive Director. Thank you Ross, and Merry Christmas to you and yours.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on December 3, 2003

© 2003 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.