By Robert Bradley
The tradition of decorating a “Christmas tree” is far older than Christianity itself — a thousand years older, in fact.
Pagans in ancient Europe used branches of fir trees to decorate their homes during the winter solstice and early Romans used evergreens to decorate their temples to celebrate the festival of Saturnalia, on December 17. Ancient Egyptians decorated their temples with green palm rushes as part of their worship of the god Ra.
As early as the 14th Century; it was a common practice for northern Europeans to decorate their homes with evergreens to brighten spirits during the winter solstice.
Dr. Dominique, a professor of history at the University of Sydney, Australia, explained it this way: “The tradition of bringing evergreen branches into the house represented fertility and new life in the darkness of winter. That’s also where the idea of decorating with holly, ivy, and mistletoe originated because they are among the few plants that flower in winter, and were regarded with special significance. The idea of bringing evergreens into one’s home eventually evolved into the Christmas tree.”
The traditional Christmas tree emerged in western Germany during the 16th century as Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with gingerbread, nuts, and apples, but it was in the 17th century that tree decoration really took shape, becoming a major feature of solstice festivals, royal courts, and the homes of elites. Trees with gold leaf and paper decorations with candles became commonplace.
As Germans emigrated to other parts of the world in the early 1800s the tradition quickly spread, with the exception of the United States, where having a Christmas tree was often viewed as a foreign pagan custom until Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularized the practice in the 1840s.
Victoria’s mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, was German; she grew up having a decorated tree at Christmas time. However, the idea of decorating a whole tree was not common among the British until a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree in Windsor Castle was published by the Illustrated London News in 1848.
The popularity of Victoria and Albert was such that their every move influenced every British home, so, decking out a tree with candles, sweets and shortly thereafter, lights became an instant tradition.
It is noteworthy to mention that the same drawing was published two years later in the United States in Godey’s Lady’s Book, only this time Victoria’s tiara and Albert’s mustache were removed to make the image appear to be more American. It was the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in the U.S. and soon the Christmas tree was in vogue.
Today, Christmas trees come in all different shapes and sizes from traditional fir to artificial – some an elaborate concoction of baubles, bubbles, Disney characters, and stuff held over from childhood, others are color-coordinated with the drapes and devan, a display that screams, “no kids allowed.”
Decorating a tree is now embraced by millions of people worldwide who celebrate many different faiths and cultures. What was once a Christian symbol became a universal reminder:
There is a season
And a time for every purpose under Heaven
— From the King James version of the Book of Ecclesiastes