Tonight and tomorrow, many families will gather around the Christmas tree to exchange gifts. If you stop to think about it, the tradition of the Christmas tree is a bit strange. Why do we cut down a tree, drag it inside, and festoon it with lights and shiny decorations each year?
In keeping with the C2 Education tradition, we wanted to provide a holiday-inspired teachable moment — so let’s figure out where the Christmas tree came from.
The First Christmas Tree
Long before the existence of Christianity — and certainly long before Christmas — evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands were used in a wide variety of winter customs in many different cultures. The Ancient Egyptians, for example, decorated with green palms during winter solstice, using the greenery to symbolize the return of life as the days grew longer. At the winter solstice, early Romans celebrated the feast of Saturnalia to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. During these celebrations, they decorated with evergreen boughs, which symbolized the coming spring. The Druids of Northern Europe also used evergreen boughs in their winter celebrations to symbolize eternal life.
It’s clear that evergreens hold a special place in the belief systems of a wide variety of ancient cultures, but the tradition of bringing an evergreen tree into the home is believed to have originated in parts of Northern Germany, Latvia, and Estonia. In Latvia and Estonia, the Brotherhood of Blackheads (a guild of merchants and ship owners) erected a holiday tree in their guild halls as early as 1441. In Northern Germany in the 16th century, a Bremen guild decorated trees decorated with fruits and sweets that the guild members’ children collected on Christmas Day. These traditions form the basis for the modern Christmas Tree.
Give a Tree a Home
Christmas trees moved into German homes during and after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. In fact, many scholars credit Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, with being the first to add lights to Christmas trees. Of course, at that time, the lights were candles — a bit of a fire hazard, but certainly very pretty.
The Christmas tree tradition remained confined to Germany for many decades. By the 1800s, the Christmas tree was an integral part of German culture, and was carried overseas by German emigrants. The custom spread throughout Europe by the end of the 19th century.
The Christmas Tree Comes to America
At least in part, we can credit the British army’s use of Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution with bringing the Christmas tree to America. The Hessian soldiers were German mercenaries hired by the British to help defeat the colonists. When the British lost the war, many German soldiers chose to remain in the United States. These settlers shared their traditions with their neighbors, thus introducing the Christmas tree tradition to the States.
By 1851, the Christmas tree was popular enough to merit the creation of the first Christmas tree market. Mark Carr, an entrepreneur from upstate New York, cut down fir and sprice trees and hauled them to New York City where his stock promptly sold out.
Today, Christmas trees are farmed all over the country and the Christmas tree has become a fixture of holiday celebrations.
As you and your family gather around your Christmas tree this year, consider the ancient roots of this tradition.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours!