The history of the Christmas tree began thousands of years ago in pagan Europe

Dec 25, 2023

By Robert Bradley

Evergreen trees and plants have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years, long before the advent of Christianity.

Pagans in Europe used branches of evergreen fir trees to decorate their homes and brighten their spirits during the winter solstice and early Romans used evergreens to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia, while 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 in many northern European people’s homes to decorate pieces of evergreen fir and place it indoors to brighten spirits during the winter solstice.

“The idea of bringing the evergreen into the house represents fertility and new life in the darkness of winter, which was much more of the pagan themes,” Dr. Dominique Wilson from the University of Sydney said.

“That’s also where the ideas of the holly and the ivy and the mistletoe come from because they’re the few flowering plants in winter so therefore they hold special significance. So the idea of bringing evergreens into the house started there and eventually that evolved into the Christmas tree.”

Modern Christmas trees emerged in western Germany during the 16th century as Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with gingerbread, nuts, and apples.

“It’s the 17th century that we really get the decorating happening, and we get a movement into the festivals and the big royal courts having these trees with t gold leaf and paper decorations with candles,” Dr. Wilson said.

Cuenca expat David Morrill’s granddaughter, London Rose, opens presents under the Christmas tree in 2022.

The custom became popular among elites and soon spread to royal courts across Europe in the early 19th century.

As Germans emigrated to other parts of the world the tradition also spread.
But in places like the United States, having a Christmas tree was often viewed as a foreign pagan custom until the mid-19th century.

While the Christmas tree originated in Germany, it was Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who popularized it in the 1840s and 1850s.

Victoria’s mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, was German so 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 image 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 more American. It was also the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in the US 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.”

It is a wonder that the tradition of 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.

To everything
There is a season
And a time for every purpose under Heaven

    –Pete Seeger


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