The Tradition of the Christmas Tree
A beautifully decorated evergreen tree, with colored lights ablaze, inspires warm memories of Christmases long past. The Christmas tree has become one of the most beloved and well-known holiday symbols.
Since ancient times the holiday tree tradition has played an important part in winter celebrations. Many pagan festivals used trees to honor their gods and spirits. In Northern Europe the Vikings considered the evergreen a symbol and reminder that the darkness and cold of winter would end and the green of spring would return. The Druids of ancient England and France decorated oak trees with fruit and candles to honor their gods of harvests. At the festival Saturnalia the Romans decorated trees with trinkets and candles.
There are many legends surrounding the lore of the Christmas tree. In one story Saint Boniface, an English monk, came upon a group of pagans gathered around an oak tree preparing to sacrifice a child. To stop the sacrifice and save the child, the Saint flattened the oak tree with one blow of his fist. A small fir sprang up in its place, which Saint Boniface told the pagans was the Tree of Life and represented the life of Christ.
Another legend tells of Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant religion, walking through the woods late one clear night. Many stars were shining through the branches of the trees giving the impression of twinkling lights. Luther was so inspired by the beauty of this sight that he cut down a small evergreen and brought it home. He recreated the stars by putting candles on the tree's branches.
The use of a Christmas tree indoors appears to have begun in Germany. German Christians would bring trees into their homes to decorate. In areas where evergreen trees were scarce, families would build a Christmas pyramid - a simple wooden structure which they decorated with branches and candles.
The tradition of the Christmas tree eventually spread throughout Europe. In 1841 English Royalty helped popularize the tree in England by decorating the first Christmas tree at Windsor Castle which Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, decorated with candles, candies, fruits, and gingerbread.
When the German immigrants came to America they brought along their Christmas trees. In the 1830s most Americans considered the Christmas tree an oddity. One of the first public displays of a Christmas tree was set up by German settlers in Pennsylvania. At the time many considered the tree to be a symbol of pagans, and it wasn't until the late 1800s that Americans began to accept the Christmas tree.
Early Christmas trees were often decorated with apples, nuts, cookies, colored popcorn and candles. The invention of electricity in the early 20th century and use of electrical Christmas lights helped spread the use of the Christmas tree.
In most communities throughout the United States it is now common to feature public displays of Christmas trees. Every year the President of the United States lights the National Christmas Tree in Washington and in New York skaters spin beneath the lighted tree at Rockefeller Center. Throughout Europe and the rest of the world the Christmas tree has become readily accepted and enjoyed.