It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. It’s hard to imagine a Christmas without a Christmas tree. The luscious green boughs, either real or plastic, are covered top to bottom in shiny baubles and lights that attempt to blind you. We lay presents beneath it, in our beautiful attempt to bring joy to our loved ones.
Where does this tradition come from? When did we start centring our celebrations around a Christmas tree?
Travelling back to Ancient Egypt, we find the archaic practice of bringing evergreens into our homes. The winter solstice was heralded as the beginning of brighter days, an indication that the sun god was regaining strength. Evergreen trees retain their colour throughout all seasons and so they brought greens inside, to symbolize the triumph of life over death.
Other cultures in the Northern hemisphere also brought evergreens inside to bring joy during the gloomy days of the solstice. The early Romans, the Celts, and the Vikings had this tradition. In ancient Rome, a feast called Saturnalia was held during the solstice, which encouraged people to celebrate the springtime ahead with evergreen decorations. The Pagans in Europe thought greenery encouraged fertility.
The prominent true Christmas tree tradition traces back to 16th-century Germany, where Christians began to celebrate Christmas by decorating trees. The tradition of adding candles to the tree branches is credited to Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation movement in the 1500s. Legend suggests that he wanted to recreate the starry night sky within his own home.
Despite the tradition being formed, it was mostly contained in Germany until the late 1700s and early 1800s. As Germans started migrating to other countries, they took the tradition with them and it spread around the world. The Christmas tree rose to fame in 1846, when Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree in their home at Windsor Castle.
Over the years there was much resistance from the Church and Christians over the relevance of the Christmas tree to the religion. It was only in 1982 that a Christmas tree was set up in Vatican City. Today, it is accepted as a symbol of Christianity, mainly due to its triangle shape which represents the Holy Trinity.
One thing I have learnt from studying about the origin of the Christmas tree is that it does not stem from only one religion or belief. It stems from humanity itself and a myriad of cultures that have contributed to this tradition we follow faithfully every year.
It shows us how deep the history of our world is; the many interconnections that are woven into our very existence on Earth. By going back to the origin, we gain more meaning from the beautiful tradition of a Christmas tree.