Why Do We Put Up Christmas Trees? The Ancient Roots of this Decorative Tradition
The Christmas tree is an iconic feature of the holiday season. You can find this symbol on greeting cards, in advertisements, shaped into cookies, plastered across wrapping paper, and in the homes of millions of people around the world. But few of us stop to consider why we go to the effort of decorating a tree each year; apart from thinking of its value in increasing our ‘Christmas cheer’.
Martin Luther’s Role in Popularizing the Christmas Tree
Although Christmas celebrations are often associated with the birth of Jesus and Christian beliefs (however, many non-Christians celebrate Christmas too), evergreen trees had no place in early Christianity. The famous symbol wasn’t even mentioned in relation to Christmas until 1605. It has been argued that the connection was first made in Germany, where it may have been popularized by the German reformer Martin Luther. Luther is said to have been inspired by the beauty of a Christmas Eve starry night sky. He decided to replicate the image by cutting down an evergreen tree and putting lit candles on it. It did not take long until German homes were decorated with candies, fruits, and paper roses for Christmas time.
Martin Luther (1529) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. ( Public Domain )
Ancient Roots of Evergreen Tree Significance
Although the link between the evergreen tree and Christmas is relatively recent, the significance of the tree itself is much older. An interest in the evergreen tree can be traced all the way back to the worship of the Sun God Mithras around 600 BC. This god was often pictured in or next to an evergreen tree.
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Relief carving at Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, depicting Mithra and an evergreen tree. ( Achaman Guañoc )
The evergreen tree was also a symbol with significance in Northern Europe. Plants and trees which stayed green throughout the year held a special place in the minds of ancient people living in the far north. They were especially seen as important around the darkest day of the year – the winter solstice - which falls on December 21 in the Northern hemisphere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people who worshipped the sun as god had a particular interest in evergreens. They believed that the sun had grown sick and weak over the winter and needed to be revived – the practice of hanging evergreen boughs in and around their homes was said to help revive the sun.
A Christmas ‘Miracle?’
Much later, in the 14th and 15th centuries, pine trees began to be used in ‘miracle plays’ performed at Christmas time across Europe in front of cathedrals. These presentations showed the birth and fall of humanity, and its eventual salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The trees used in these plays were decorated with apples and linked to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
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Pine trees were decorated with apples to symbolize the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. ( Public Domain )
Miracle plays were ultimately banned by the Church, but the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree spread and continues to this day.
Painting from 1898 of a lady decorating a Christmas tree in France. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Detail of decorations on a Christmas tree. Source: Public Domain