By Dr. Richard P. Bucher. The Christmas tree is one of the most popular and cherished Christmas customs. Each year, 35-40 million live trees are purchased and decorated in the United States alone. But when, where, and how did this custom begin? What is the origin of the Christmas tree? What does it mean?
Many answers to these questions have been offered on the Internet. Some are completely erroneous. Some make no distinction between history and legend. Unfortunately, none of them give sources for their assertions about the Christmas tree (a problem with most web articles!). Given that dependable scholarly sources about the history of the Christmas tree are hard to come by, citation-less Christmas tree web pages are understandable.
In doing the research for this article, I found three works especially helpful. The first is Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan by Clement A. Miles. Though now a bit dated, Miles’s work made use of the best scholarship of the time, much of which has not been improved upon, and therefore is still a valuable resource. Of equal value is Francis X. Weiser’s Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. Weiser’s work only devotes several chapters to the customs of Christmas, but these are well researched and articulated. I also found The Solstice Evergreen by Sheryl Ann Karas to be helpful. Karas has done an admirable job researching the various ways that the evergreen has been used in various cultures over the centuries and this is the book’s strength.
What was the origin of the Christmas tree? As much as I would like to embrace as fact the oft- quoted story that Martin Luther was the first to set up a Christmas tree (or at least a lighted one), I cannot — for the story is pure legend. Many years of intensive Luther scholarship has turned up nothing to support it. There is scholarly consensus, however, that the Christmas tree originated in Germany. Indeed, the earliest record of an evergreen tree being used and decorated (but without lights) for Christmas is 1521 in the German region of Alsace. Another useful description has been found among the notes of an unknown resident of Strasbourg in 1605, who writes that “At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors at Strasburg and hang thereon roses cut of many- coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets . . .” Some fifty years later (about 1650) the great Lutheran theologian Johann Dannhauer wrote in his The Milk of the Catechism that “the Christmas or fir tree, which people set up in their houses, hang with dolls and sweets, and afterwards shake and deflower. . . Whence comes this custom I know not; it is child’s play . . . Far better were it to point the children to the spiritual cedar-tree, Jesus Christ.”
Several conclusions can be gleaned from these quotations. First, we are told some of the items with which the first Christmas trees were decorated: paper roses, apples, Communion wafers, gold, foil, sweets, and dolls. Second, even in 1650 a noted scholar like Dannhauer did not know the origin of Christmas trees. Third, not all Christians approved of these trees, even in the beginning. Fourth, the first Christmas trees, as far as we know, did not have lights. According to Weiser, the first mention of lights (candles) on a Christmas tree is in the seventeenth century.
From the mid-seventeenth century on the Christmas tree slowly grew in popularity and use. However, it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the use of the Christmas tree grew into the general German custom that it is today. Also at this time it spread to the Slavic people of eastern Europe. The Christmas tree was probably first used in America about 1700 when the first wave of German immigration settled in western Pennsylvania. During the War of Independence, Hessian soldiers supposedly set up Christmas trees. It is widely held that the Christmas tree was first introduced into France in 1837 when Princess Helen of Mecklenburg brought it to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orléans. The Christmas tree made its royal debut in England when Prince Albert of Saxony, the husband of Queen Victoria, set up a tree in Windsor Castle in 1841. After this it grew in popularity, though in 1850 Charles Dickens was still referring to it as a “new German toy.”
Karas has amply demonstrated that evergreens have been a symbol of rebirth from ancient times. Bringing greenery into one’s home, often at the time of the winter solstice, symbolized life in the midst of death in many cultures. The Romans decked their homes with evergreens and other greenery during the Kalends of January. Living trees were also brought into homes during the old German feast of Yule, which originally was a two-month feast beginning in November. The Yule tree was planted in a tub and brought into the home. However, the evidence just does not exist which shows that Christians first used trees at Christmas as a symbol of rebirth, nor that the Christmas tree was a direct descendent of the Yule tree. On the contrary, the evidence that we have points in another direction. The Christmas tree appears to be a descendent of the Paradise tree and the Christmas light of the late Middle Ages.
From the eleventh century, religious plays called “mystery plays” became quite popular throughout Europe. These plays were performed outdoors and in churches. One of the most prevalent of these plays was the “Paradise play.” The play depicted the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from Paradise. The play would end with the promise of the coming Savior and His Incarnation (cf. Gen. 3:15). The Paradise play was simple by today’s standards. The only prop on stage was the “Paradise tree,” a fir tree adorned with apples. From this tree, at the appropriate time in the play, Eve would take the fruit, eat it, and give it to Adam.
Because of abuses that crept into the mystery plays (i.e., immoral behavior), the Church forbade these plays during the fifteenth century. The people had grown so accustomed to the Paradise tree, however, that they began putting their own Paradise tree up in their homes on Dec. 24. They did so on Dec. 24 because this was the feast day of Adam and Eve (at least in the Eastern Church). The Paradise tree, as it had in the Paradise plays, symbolized both a tree of sin and a tree of life. For this reason, the people would decorate these trees with apples (representing the fruit of sin) and homemade wafers (like communion wafers which represented the fruit of life). Later, candy and sweets were added.
Another custom was to be found in the homes of Christians on Dec. 24 since the late Middle Ages. A large candle called the “Christmas light,” symbolizing Christ who is the light of the world, was lit on Christmas Eve. In western Germany, many smaller candles were set upon a wooden pyramid and lit. Besides the candles, other objects such as glass balls, tinsel, and the “star of Bethlehem” were placed on its top.
Though we cannot be certain, it seems highly likely that the first Christmas trees that appeared in Germany in the early sixteenth century were descendants of both of these customs: the Paradise tree and the Christmas pyramids and lights. The Paradise tree became our Christmas tree. Decorations that had been placed on the pyramids were transferred to the Christmas tree.
For many Christians the Christmas tree still retains the symbolism of the Paradise tree. The tree reminds us of the tree in Eden by which Adam and Eve were overcome and which thrust them into sin. But more importantly, the tree reminds us of the tree by which our sin was overcome, namely the tree upon which Christ Jesus was crucified. Is it a stretch to refer to the cross as a tree? Hardly, for this is the language of the New Testament itself! For example, Paul writes in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (quoting Deut. 21:23). And Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” Therefore, the Christmas tree is a wonderful symbol and reminder of our salvation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ!
Some other interesting facts about the Christmas tree, some of which I haven’t yet substantiated from the sources (so use at your own risk!) are:
The first retail Christmas stand was set up by Mark Carr in New York City in 1851;
Franklin Pierce was the first president to introduce the Christmas tree to the White House in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children;
The first lighted Christmas tree in public was in Boston in 1912;19;
The first national Christmas Tree was lighted in the year 1923 on the White House lawn by President Calvin Coolidge.
Updated: November, 2000
Reprinted with permission from:
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church