From Mithraic Mysteries to Modern Mirth: Unraveling the Evergreen Christmas Tree Tradition
The Christmas tree is probably one of the most recognizable symbols of Christmas, seen on greeting cards, advertisements, cookies, wrapping paper and in the homes of millions of people around the world. I have to admit, that until recently, I never thought to question why I go to the effort every year of decorating a tree, apart from the fact that it always brings a little bit of so-called Christmas cheer.
While the celebration of Christmas is typically associated with Christianity and the birth of Jesus (although many non-Christians also celebrate Christmas), the symbolism of an evergreen tree did not have a place in early Christianity. In fact, it was not mentioned in connection with Christmas at all until 1605 in Germany.
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Some suggest that the German reformer Martin Luther popularized the use of the Christmas tree. Luther, inspired by the beauty of the stars on Christmas Eve night, is said to have cut an evergreen and put lighted candles on it to represent the starry sky above the stable the night Jesus was born. By the early 1600s, trees decorated with candies, fruits and paper roses were a part of the holiday decorations in German homes.
Steel engraving of Martin Luther’s Christmas Tree, from Sartain’s Magazine, circa 1860. (Public domain)
The Use of the Evergreen Tree in Ancient History
The evergreen tree, laden with symbolic weight, is often linked to the ancient Roman sun god Mithras, whose roots lie in Persian or Zoroastrian traditions. As a pivotal figure in the Mithraic Mysteries, which were prominent from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD, Mithras was venerated as the unconquered sun, commanding devotion from Roman soldiers and holding sway over cosmic forces.
While some accounts suggest an association between Mithraic rituals and evergreen trees, particularly during the festival of Sol Invictus honoring the invincible sun, this connection lacks robust documentation and broad scholarly acknowledgment.
Legend has it that adorning evergreen trees with candles and decorations in Mithraic celebrations symbolized eternal life, mirroring the cyclical nature of the sun and its promise of renewal. Yet, the historical veracity of this claim remains a subject of debate among scholars. The influence of such practices on later traditions, including the use of decorated evergreen trees in winter festivities like Christmas, is a tantalizing hypothesis awaiting further scrutiny.
Centuries later, the evergreen tree also became a symbol with special significance in Northern Europe. Plants and trees that remained green all-year-round had always had an important role for ancient peoples living in far northern regions, especially around the darkest day of the year – the winter solstice, which falls on 21st December in the Northern hemisphere.
People who worshipped the sun as a god began to celebrate it. They believed that the sun had grown sick and weak over the winter and needed to be revived. Within ancient European cultures this led to the practice of hanging evergreen boughs in and around their homes.
Relief carving at Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, depicting what some have claimed is an evergreen tree and precursor to the Christmas tree (but is actually a cypress tree). (LBM1948 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Miracle Plays and Paradise Trees: Origins of Christmas Trees in Medieval Festivities
Miracle plays, also known as mystery plays, were a form of medieval drama that originated in the Christian Church during the Middle Ages, primarily from the 10th to the 16th centuries. These theatrical productions depicted scenes from the Bible, particularly focusing on miracles, biblical stories and the lives of saints. Miracle plays were performed primarily in vernacular languages, making them accessible to the general public.
These miracle plays often included a reenactment of the biblical story of the Fall of Man, where Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation in the Garden of Eden. As part of this narrative, a “paradise tree” would be used to represent the Garden of Eden.
The paradise tree, usually a fir tree, would be adorned with apples to symbolize the forbidden fruit and with wafers or other decorations representing the Eucharist. The use of evergreen trees in this context symbolized eternal life, and the apples and decorations served as reminders of biblical stories.
Whether this was the precursor of the Christmas tree, or whether Luther was the author of these rituals, what is certain is that by the early 17th century Christmas trees were a thing. For historical records state that in 1605, the people of Strasburg in Germany “set up fir trees in the parlors… and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.”
Though such miracle plays were later banned by the church, this tradition spread widely. Many claim that this practice eventually evolved into the tradition of the Christmas tree, though it's important to note that the direct link between these two is not universally agreed upon by scholars.
The royal Christmas tree is admired by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children, December 1848. (Public domain)
How Queen Victoria Transformed the Christmas Tree into a Global Icon
While the use of evergreen Christmas trees in winter celebrations has roots in Germanic, Slavic and Scandinavian cultures, in England it was Queen Victoria who popularized the Christmas tree tradition in England during the 19th century. It was her German husband, Prince Albert, who introduced the tradition to the British royal family.
In 1848, a widely circulated illustration in the Illustrated London News depicted Queen Victoria, along with Prince Albert and their children, gathered around a decorated Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. German immigrants had introduced the custom of Christmas trees to Britain in the early 1800s, but it wasn't until Queen Victoria embraced the tradition that it gained widespread acceptance among the English populace.
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Before Queen Victoria's endorsement, the practice of decorating fir trees for Christmas had struggled to catch on with the local population. However, the Queen's celebration of the holiday with fir trees and presents, as influenced by Albert’s German heritage, sparked a cultural shift. The Christmas tree quickly became fashionable among the layfolk, and its popularity extended beyond England.
The tradition continued to gain momentum, reaching the United States in the late 19th century. The first recorded Christmas tree in the White House was set up by President Benjamin Harrison in 1889. Subsequently, President Calvin Coolidge initiated the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923, cementing the Christmas tree as an integral part of American holiday celebrations. Over time, the influence of Western culture and the rise of consumerism transformed the Christmas tree into a universal symbol, embraced by people of various faiths worldwide.
Top image: Traditional Christmas tree. Source: Asad / Adobe Stock