The Origin of the Christmas Tree
- Monday, December 17, 2012
Though some scholars have attributed the origin of the Christmas tree to pagan celebrations, it is more likely that the modern Christmas tree has its beginning in Christian practices. No one will disagree that pagans have long “worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)...yes, even trees, and lighted trees were probably used in various pagan religious celebrations throughout history. However, there is no evidence linking such pagan rituals to the Christmas tree.
Among the many accounts claiming to explain the origin of the Christmas tree, the three most popular are from Germany — making it the likeliest place of origin. The stories span from the 8th to the 16th century. All three have some element of historical fact, and they may even loosely connect from one to another.
(1) The first story is about St. Boniface (whose birth name was Winfried). In the 8th century, he was a missionary to some of the remotest tribes of Germany. He is probably best known for what is called the “Felling of Thor’s Oak.”1 It is said that upon entering a town in northern Hesse (Hessia), Boniface learned that the people worshiped the god Thor. They believed that Thor resided in a great oak tree among them. Boniface determined that if he wanted to earn an audience with the people, he would have to confront Thor. He announced before the people that he was going to cut down the oak, and he openly challenged Thor to strike him down. Miraculously, as Boniface began to chop the oak, a mighty wind blew and hurled the tree to the ground. Tradition holds that a fir tree was growing in the roots of the oak, and Boniface claimed the tree as a symbol of Christ. Needless to say, the people readily accepted Boniface’s message, and the tree eventually came to be associated with the birth of Christ and a celebration of the day when the mighty God (who could hurl a gigantic oak to the ground) chose to humbly enter the world as a babe.
(2) Another possible source of the Christmas tree (and probably the most likely) comes from medieval religious plays in Germany. Among the most popular of these plays was the “Paradise” play. It started with the creation of man, acted out the first sin, and showed Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise (the Garden of Eden). It closed with the promise of a coming Savior, which made the play a particular favorite during the Christmas season. In the play, the Garden of Eden was most often represented by a fir tree hung with apples and surrounded by candles.
At one point, religious plays were suppressed in Germany, and the popular symbol of the Paradise play made its way into the homes of Christians.2 By the 15th century, Christians started to decorate their trees not only with apples (the symbol of the forbidden fruit that led to the first sin and the need for a Savior) but with small white wafers (the symbol of Christ’s body, the Savior). These wafers were later replaced by little pieces of pastry cut in the shape of stars, angels, bells, etc.
(3) A third tradition about the origin of the Christmas tree attributes it to Martin Luther, an influential leader of the Reformation. Some say that on Christmas Eve, Luther was walking through the woods near his home. He was struck by the beauty of how the snow shimmered in the moonlight on the branches of the trees. In an effort to re-create the magnificent sight for his family, he cut down the tree, placed it in his home, and decorated it with candles.
Though Christmas trees may have already existed in homes throughout Germany at the time of Luther, it is possible that he did in fact conceive the idea of adding candles to their branches. He may have been erroneously credited with beginning the tradition of the Christmas tree itself simply because his followers were the ones to spread the custom around Europe as they fled persecution in Germany.
Though there may be disagreement on when the tradition of Christmas trees first started, the case is certainly strong for both a German and a Christian origin. As might be expected, the popular carol “O Christmas Tree” (“O Tannenbaum” in German) also had its beginning in Germany.
Interestingly, in the Bible, God compares himself to a tree. He says, “I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me” (Hosea 14:8b). This is a relevant analogy to consider during the Christmas season. The fruitful lives of Christians can serve as the “ornaments” that draw others to admire the “tree” – God himself!
1 Catholic Encyclopedia. “St. Boniface.” Retrieved August 8, 2008 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02656a.htm.
2 Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1958, p. 99.
The content in this article is drawn from Christmas, Celebrating the Christian History of Classic Symbols, Songs and Stories, Holiday Classics Publishing, 2010. It is used with permission. Learn more about this Christmas book.
Angie Mosteller is founder of Celebrating Holidays, an educational company dedicated to teaching the Christian roots of American holidays. For more information on the history and symbols of Christmas, as well as creative ideas, visit www.celebratingholidays.com.
Publication date: December 17, 2012
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