Donning a home with a decorated evergreen tree is a holiday tradition to many during the month of December. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, a survey of U.S. consumers indicates the purchase of more than 28 million real and 11 million artificial Christmas trees in 2008. In addition, close to 350 million real Christmas trees are currently growing on Christmas tree farms (2005). The popularity is quite apparent when one looks at the statistics (see Table 1).
Christmas tree purchase figures since 2002 (in millions)
Year purchases in millions
2002 Real 22.2 Artificial 7.4
2003 Real 23.4 Artificial 9.6
2004 Real 27.1 Artificial 9.0
2005 Real 32.8 Artificial 9.3
2006 Real 28.6 Artificial 9.3
2007 Real 31.3 Artificial 17.4
2008 Real 28.2 Artificial 11.7
National Christmas Tree Association. (2005). Consumer survey results. In National Christmas Tree Association: Digital newsroom [table]. Retrieved December 2, 2009, from http://www.christmastree.org/statistics_consumer.cfmSince so many people display an ornamented tree year after year, then the roots of the custom should be, in the very least, somewhat apparent. The truth is that the exact opposite is true. Many people ascertain that the Christmas tree tradition began in Christianized Germany; however the evergreen symbol has roots much deeper in pre-Christian pagan celebrations.
One seemingly popular yarn regards Saint Boniface, born as Winfred (ca. 672-754 A.D.). Known as the “Apostle of the Germans,” Boniface was an eighth century missionary to the Franks and Saxons and is also referred to as the patron saint of Germany and the Netherlands (Saint Boniface, 2008). Just as a myth or legend changes from source to source, so does this story.
Supposedly, Saint Boniface gathered newly baptized Christians around their sacrificial oak tree. Splitting the tree into four upon being cut down, a young fir sapling appeared at its roots. The pine was proclaimed to be a symbol of the new-found Christian faith because the shape points towards heaven and because the evergreen represents eternal life (Tucker, 1997).
This tale becomes further exaggerated by others. While walking through the woods, Winfred happened upon some pagans who were preparing to sacrifice a child to Thor beneath the oak tree. He saved the child, apparently with superhuman strength, by chopping the tree down with one blow of his axe. Again, this action revealed a young fir tree in its place (History, origin, legend, & decoration of the Christmas tree, n.d.).
After this miracle occurred, Saint Boniface ordered the newly converted Christians to remember the event by placing the trees inside their homes and surrounding it with gifts (The Christmas tree, 2008). Timberwind Tree Farm, however, believes that the end resulted with the annual planting of evergreen saplings (n.d.). In either case, the legend of Saint Boniface is just one of a few different stories about the Christmas tree’s origins, and the ever-changing tale identifies more with a myth. It is not a factual account.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) is considered the founder of the protestant faith (History, origin, legend, & decoration of the Christmas tree, n.d.). A story about him details his walk through the woods while composing a sermon. Awestruck by the glimmering of stars through the trees, he decided to take a tree home. Wiring it with candles, he tells his tale to his children (Origin of the Christmas tree, 2009.; The Christmas tree, 2008).
This tale may be beautiful to some, but its accuracy is debatable. According to a couple sources, the first record of a Christmas tree did not exist until 60 years after Luther died (Robinson 2005; Tucker, 1997). Others debate its authenticity through claims that the first Christmas tree was used in Riga, Latvia and has nothing to do with Martin Luther (Johnson, 2009). Whether the Christmas tree first appeared someplace else or several decades later, the general consensus among most is that Martin Luther is not the originator of this highly popular tradition.
Another option comes to light with the practice of Paradise Plays during the middle ages. The Paradise Play was performed annually on December 24 to celebrate Adam and Eve Day (Tucker, 1997). The play itself had a very simple set—a fir tree decorated with apples—and was a way of telling the story during a time when people could not read (History, origin, legend, & decoration of the Christmas tree, n.d.).
During the time of the paradise plays, it was believed that the fir tree was the Tree of Life and the tree upon which Christ died. Upon its creation, the tree bore flowers, leaves, and fruit which shrunk to needles and pinecones after Eve ate its forbidden fruit. This story also dictates that, on the night of Christ’s birth, the fir tree briefly blossomed once again (Tucker, 1997).
In the 15th Century, the Paradise Play was banned due to immoral behaviors and other abuses. Despite this, the Paradise tree was commonplace among the people, and they started placing the tree in their homes on December 24. The tree gradually evolved to include homemade wafers, candy, and sweets along with the apples (Bucher, 2006).
The Paradise plays of the middle ages seem to be a plausible origin of the Christmas tree tradition. The background is verifiable, and the information does not change from source to source—unlike the legends involving Saint Boniface and Martin Luther. The historical aspects of the Christmas tree, however, do not stop in the Christianized Middle Ages.
Before the conversion to Christianity, evergreens were often used around the time of the Winter Solstice. It is also believed that the Christmas holiday may have been placed around this time to allow pagans to identify with certain Christian beliefs. This theory holds validity since the Winter Solstice, prior to the calendar used today, fell on December 25 (Crystal, 2009). Therefore, pagan customs involving the use of evergreens may have been incorporated into Christmas celebrations (Harrigan, n.d.).
The Winter Solstice is the point in the earth’s cycle when the Northern Hemisphere experiences the shortest amount of daylight and the longest amount of darkness. It is also around the time that most plant life seemed to die except for the evergreen. It is for that reason that the evergreen seemed to have magical properties (Robinson, 2005).
The Egyptians did not have fir trees, but they did have green date palm trees. Each year, around the time of the solstice, they would decorate homes with palm branches as a symbol of resurrection—life overcoming death (Robinson, 2005; Robson, n.d., Tucker, 1997).
The Romans celebrated the Feast of Saturnalia around the time of the Winter Solstice which occurred from December 17 through a few days after the solstice. During this time evergreen clippings adorned homes and bits of metal along with replicas of Bacchus ornamented trees (Robinson, 2005). The masks of Bacchus, god of fertility, would toss in the wind. It is said that fertility would touch every part of the tree that the mask faced (Tucker, 1997).
Romans also used the evergreen tree in celebration of the sun god, Nimrod. Throughout the night of the solstice, a Yule log burned. When the sun rose, the log was replaced by a trimming from an evergreen in commemoration of Nimrod’s resurrection through his son, Tammuz (Christmas history, 2008). Along with the Yule log tradition, 12 candles were placed on the evergreen tree to worship of the sun god during the Feast of Saturnalia (Robinson, 2005).
Even before the Paradise tree, Saint Boniface, and Martin Luther; Germans used the fir tree as a symbol of rebirth during the winter months. The Feast of Yule lasted two months starting in November. During that time, Germans planted a fir tree in a tub and brought it into the home (Bucher, 2006). It seems, then, that the pre-Christian Yule tree could very well be the predecessor to the Paradise tree found in homes of the Middle Ages.
With pagan celebrations found in Germany, Rome, and Egypt during the coldest and deadest time of year, it seems clear that the tradition of using the magical symbol of the evergreen tree and its branches existed long before Christianity. Coupled with the fact that the Christmas holiday was not original to the month of December, but instead placed during the time of the solstice, one might ascertain that these festivities may be the Christmas tree’s precursor.
Compelling arguments exist for both pagan and Germanic Christian origins of the Christmas tree custom. It is possible that Saint Boniface did, in fact, utilize the fir tree in his missionary sermons with German pagans. Some truth may lie in the story about Martin Luther’s walk in the woods. Paradise Plays were enacted during the middle ages, and they may have spawned the tradition of placing the Paradise tree within homes. History is full of, however, pagan traditions involving the use of conifers during the winter months.
Even though pagan celebrations involving the use of evergreens around the Winter Solstice precede Christianity and the Christmas holiday, each party has equal claims on the tree custom’s origins. Whether one celebrates the birth of the son or the resurrection of the sun, the symbol means something different to its users. It is this diversity of beliefs that makes the evergreen such a prominent fixture in homes during the winter months.
Do the roots of the Christmas tree tradition stem from Christianized Germany? Yes. Are pre-Christian pagans responsible for the use of the magical symbol in homes? Yes. Since the tree symbolizes something different to each religious group, then each has a unique history from which the tradition originates. Therefore, both Christianity and paganism alike, have equal claims to their own traditions.
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Johnson, M. (2009). History of the Riga Christmas tree. In Home of the first Christmas tree. Retrieved December 12, 2009, from Patricia, Riga tourist office website: http://firstchristmastree.net/
Origin of the Christmas tree. (n.d.). Timberwind tree farm. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from http://www.timberwindtrees.com/origin.htm
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