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The History of the Christmas Tree
Christmas Trees
Universal acceptance of the Christmas tree as a holiday essential occurred less than two centuries ago, but the roots of bringing an evergreen in one’s home during the darkest days of Christmas can be traced back more than 1000 years. To Christians, the Christmas tree is often more than just another decoration; it is a vibrant part of the spiritual essence of the season.

One thousand years after the crucifixion of Christ, most of those living in what is now Scandinavia had not been reached by Christian missionaries. In the winter, with the winds howling, snow piled up as high as rooftops, and temperatures constantly hovering below zero, life was tough. Scores of villagers and animals died each year due to the effects of this dark and depressing season. Yet during the long and often brutal winter, when the sun disappeared for months and nights seemed to last forever, the deeply superstitious Vikings found hope and strength in the evergreen tree. The evergreen not only survived the harsh winter; it even seemed to thrive when times were most bleak. In an effort to bring some of the magic of the evergreen tree into their lives, Vikings would chop down a fir and place it in their homes for encouragement. Throughout the years many other people groups adopted a fascination with this beautiful tree that stayed green during the winter.

In the seventh century, St. Boniface, a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, England, constantly traveled across Europe as a missionary. On his many treks, the dynamic Boniface established hundreds of Christian Churches throughout France and Germany. It has been written that on one of these trips, he came across a band of men who had gathered around a huge oak tree. One of these men held in his hands a small boy who had been chosen as a sacrifice to the god Thor. When he saw what was transpiring, Boniface demanded that the men stop their ritual. When they refused, the priest walked up to the old tree and struck the trunk with his fist. In an act the men viewed as a miracle, the mighty oak shuddered and fell to the ground. As the dust settled, a tiny fir tree became visible just behind where the oak had towered. Boniface pointed the tree out to the men, explaining that the evergreen was the Tree of Life. He told them that the tree even winter could not kill stood for the eternal life offered to them by Christ. Finally he pointed to the triangular shape of the tree and stated the fir’s three points represented the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of the men supposedly gave their lives to Christ at the spot where the tiny evergreen grew

Five centuries later this story had become legend, and each winter throughout France and Germany, evergreen trees were hung from ceilings as a symbol of Christianity. Though history does not tell us why, the firs were always hung upside down. This practice would continue for another 200 years.

Besides being hung in homes during the Dark Ages, in much of the Baltic region of Europe, evergreen trees were cut and placed outside Catholic churches during the month of December. These firs were referred to as “paradise trees” and were used by the clergy to explain the story of Adam and Eve to children. Apples were hung on the trees, representing the fruit of knowledge. Children play the parts of Adam and Eve and would listen to another child portraying the serpent and then proceed to eat the apple. When they took a bite, they were chased from church property into the cold, cruel world. The fir was used for this pageant because its everlasting nature represented the eternal life that God offers through belief in his Son, Jesus. Thus, the final facet of the lesson was that human beings could repent and be welcomed back into the presence of God. While not a recognized Christmas symbol, the paradise tree did move an ancient pagan custom another step toward becoming a tradition rooted in Christian faith.

Probably the first fir that was actually called a Christmas tree was put up in Latvia, a Baltic country in northern Europe, in 1510. It was a small tree set on a table rather than hung from the ceiling. In 1521, Princess Helene de Mecklembourg, who was familiar with the use of Christmas trees in Latvia, married the Duke of Orleans. When she moved to France, she introduced the Christmas tree to Paris. Yet this act only put the Christmas tree in the castle, not on the map. By the late 1500’s, the practice of displaying paradise trees had been largely forgotten, and fir trees had been taken down from ceilings and placed on floors. Trees were not yet generally associated with Christmas, however, but were considered throwbacks to pagan rituals. It would take one of history’s most famous Christian leaders to change that perception.

Legend has it that Martin Luther was walking home on a dark December evening when he was struck by the beauty of the starlight coming through the branches of the many fir trees in the woods around his home. The German Protestant Reformer was so captivated by the way the filtered light appeared that he felt moved to duplicate this effect on the tree he had placed in his home. He tied a candle holder onto one of the evergreen’s branches, put a candle in the wooden holder, and lit it. Walking to the opposite side of the tree, he studied the flickering light. He liked the effect and attached several more candles in the same way. Not only was the preacher’s family impressed, so were his neighbors. A host of them added candles to their own indoor trees, and the tradition of a lighted tree was born.

Luther taught his friends and family that the tree represented the everlasting love of God. He pointed out that the evergreen’s color did not fade, just as the Lord’s love would not fade, no matter what the circumstance or trial. The candlelight represented the hope that Christ brought to the world through his birth and resurrection. Thus, to those who knew Luther, the tree evolved into a symbol, not just of Christmas, but of the Christian faith in general.

During the American Revolution, Hessian mercenaries fighting for the Colonial army introduced the Christmas tree to the United States. The idea of using trees during the holidays, however, did not catch on and returned to Germany with the soldiers. It was Pennsylvania Germans who finally brought the Christmas tree to America to stay in the 1820’s.

The Christmas tree is the most endearing of all the holiday traditions that originated in pagan cultures. Christmas trees can be found in stores and churches, on streets and in yards, in schools and businesses, and of course, in hundreds of millions of homes around the world. For many, the tree that can survive even the most barbarous winter has come to represent the everlasting promise of eternal life offered through Christ. The lights placed in the manger brought hope to a dark and hopeless world. Because the evergreen is so strong and so resilient, it has also come to represent peace and hope to millions.

This history of the Christmas tree was taken from Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas by Ace Collins. Copyright © 2003 Zondervan. For more information, please visit www.acecollins.com.

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