Christmas Trees – The History of a Christmastime Tradition

When we talk about the history of Christmas trees, there are really several issues to address.  First, there is the association of the evergreen tree with indoor trellis.  When and where did this begin?  Next, how did the evergreen tree come to be associated with the Christian holiday of Christmas?  And last, how did this association manifest itself into our modern day tradition of a decorated tree at the holiday season?  We will examine each of these questions one by one.

Evergreen trees and Christianity:

There is some debate about when and how the evergreen tree first became associated with Christianity.  Some historians tell us that a monk named Boniface happened upon a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree in the woods (and possibly also performing animal and human sacrifices there).  Boniface was angered by this, and he cut the oak tree down.  As the legend goes, an evergreen tree sprang up where the oak had been.  Boniface and the pagans believed this to be a sign of Christianity, and thus, the association of the evergreen tree with Christianity first begin.  There is also some debate about where exactly this happened.  Some historians claim it happened in Riga, Latvia.  However, some others argue that this occurred in Germany, which might make more sense given that Boniface was a German monk.

Evergreen trees and Christmas:

Some other historians claim that the monk Boniface actually used the evergreen tree as a teaching tool to preach Christian beliefs to pagan populations.  He took the triangular shape of the tree as a symbol of the Christian trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  According to this legend, sometime around the 12th century A.D., Christian people brought evergreen trees indoors at Christmastime and hung them upside down from their ceilings as a symbol of the Christian faith.

Others claim that the earliest recorded reference to evergreen trees being used at Christmas celebrations was documented by 16th century German craft guilds.  One such reference tells of a fir tree that was decorated and displayed in the guild’s main shop, and that the guildmen’s children were allowed to take the small gifts that decorated the tree for the holiday.  Still other references suggest that perhaps the guild apprentices were charged with carrying the decorated evergreen through the streets in celebration.

Martin Luther is another individual credited with the early association between the evergreen tree and Christmas.  As the story goes, Luther was out for a walk one winter evening, admiring the beauty of the twinkling stars in the clear night sky.  He was thus inspired to cut down an evergreen tree, bring it indoors, and attempt to re-create the starlight effect by decorating the tree with candles.

Transition to the Modern Day Christmas Tree:

Traditionally, Germans decorated their Christmas trees with fruits, nuts, small gifts, and other trinkets.  Glass ornaments also got their start in the famous glassblowing shops of Germany.  For this reason, our modern day tradition of decorated Christmas trees is usually traced back to a German heritage.

There was a period of time when Christmas trees were shunned by conservative Christians as idolatry.  In Puritan America, Christmas trees were not welcome in Christmas celebrations.  In England, decorated trees and Christmas carols were banned completely.  Fortunately, these days didn’t last for too long.  In the mid-1800’s, Queen Victoria of England and her royal family were photographed in front of their decorated family Christmas tree and the picture appeared in the London News.  From then on, decorated Christmas trees became widely popular in England and the United States.

The tradition of decorating evergreen trees at Christmastime has certainly evolved from the early historical accounts, but one thing remains the same.  A beautifully decorated Christmas tree is still an inspiring sight enjoyed by all that puts us in the holiday spirit each year.

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