Christmas Tree History and Folklore
by Rob Sproule
Of all the wonderful things Christmas is, it’s also a smorgasbord for history buffs like myself. Digging into any of its eclectic traditions will take you into a fascinating journey back through time to where it began, evolved, and eventually ended up as an integral part of our modern Christmas experience.
To me, one of the most interesting traditions is the Christmas tree. Have you ever wondered why we bring a giant evergreen tree into our living room? The truth is more amazing than fiction, with magic and Druids, Saint and Queen all playing their roles.
Bringing live boughs into the home near the winter solstice predates almost every other Christmas tradition, including Christianity itself. Ancient Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews associated evergreens, which remained vibrant while their deciduous cousins shed, with life magic stubborn and strong enough to resist the long winter.
Ancient Egyptians brought palm leaves into their homes during the winter solstice to celebrate life’s triumph over death. At the same time, Romans would bring boughs and branches into their homes to celebrate Saturnalia, their festival of the deity Saturn in the latter half of December.
Early European druids hung evergreen sprigs of holly and mistletoe indoors in hopes that their sympathetic life magic would ward off spirits lurking during the winter solstice. As the Middle Ages rolled on, German and Scandinavian peoples brought evergreen trees indoors, or placed them outside their doors, to express their hope for bountiful return to spring.
Early Christians were hostile to these pagan rituals, with the theologian Tertullian condemning Christians who participated in the Roman winter festivals. Sometime during the Middle Ages, however, something changed.
The legend grew that, on the night that Christ was born, all surrounding trees shook off their snow and burst into leaf. At the same time, Christian missionaries began to tolerate, slightly, more ancient customs. It’s controversial and, as most Middle Ages history is, murky, but whether through Christian leniency or Pagan perseverance, the tradition of bringing evergreens into the home endured.
The modern Christmas tree comes from Germany, where legend credits none other than Martin Luther for lighting the first candle on the branches to symbolize God’s triumph over darkness. Churches across what is now Germany began bringing “paradise trees” inside for Creation plays and the tradition grew.
Oh Christmas Tree
When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Germany in 1841, they brought the tradition to Britain. It spread like wildfire and in 1848 a newspaper portrayed Windsor Castle’s main tree on its cover and the rest is history.
A woodcut of that newspaper cover made its way to America where it was printed vigorously. President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) erected the first tree in the White House and the rest, as they say, is history.