The Christmas tree is not just pagan, it may be a fundamental symbol of the enduring spirit of human life.
How Far Do Those Branches Stretch Back
Christmas trees decorate so many of our public and private spaces at this time of year. But the many rituals, big and small, which take place around this tree infuse it with a meaning that extends beyond the holiday of Christmas itself.
We know that the Christians appropriated Christmas traditions from a variety of pagan rituals. However, mythologies and traditions have since our own humble human beginnings traveled and evolved along with us.
Santa may have begun as a mushroom-eating shaman. The North Star is an ancient symbol in shamanic cosmology. The Christmas tree is no exception. In order to penetrate into the symbol’s origins, we must remove its decorations – both literal and figurative – and first, look at it for it is – an evergreen.
Many ancient cultures – Chinese, Hebrew, and Egyptian – viewed evergreens as symbols of eternal life. No wonder why – these trees keep growing leaves as others fall off thus retaining their foliage year-round. It would’ve been a remarkable feat to witness as much of the natural world appeared to die in the winter and resurrect in the spring. The winter solstice seemed to hold a similar meaning across cultures: the rebirth of the sun, triumph over death and everlasting life.
Though individual belief systems have their own metaphorical packages with which to deliver their meaning, the evergreens have long been sacred even considered gifts. As their name suggests, they have withstood the changes in seasons, the civilizations that have come and gone, and still decorate our homes.
The Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra. They believed that the departure or sickness of Ra caused winter on earth. Where Ra would go, we’re not sure, but Egyptians filled their homes with green date palm rushes to symbolize Ra’s triumph over illness and death.
The Celtic Druids
Stonehedge is the monument to the winter solstice. The ancient Celts were clearly quite serious about the importance of this time of year. They too adorned their temples with evergreens to celebrate the return of the sun.
Ancient China Takes First in Tree Lighting
The Ancient Chinese had evergreens too which became a symbol of longevity in their culture due to the fact that it survived the winter season. Evergreens symbolized the everlasting spirit of life and the continuity of the family lineage. Unsurprisingly, evergreens were typically placed at tomb sites and burial grounds in keeping with so many winter solstice traditions that symbolize enduring life.
The first record of tree illumination, however, does go to China. In the Tsin dynasty, which ended in 247 B.C.E., we find the first tree decorated with lamps and flowers, then placed at the entrance of an audience hall.
These mighty giants worshipped a sun god too – who hasn’t? – named Balder. The evergreen was a part of his symbolic plumage. They believed that the winter frost brought the evil spirits into their world. Evergreens were their means of protection. Bringing wreaths and whole evergreens into their homes meant that death, sickness, and the various manifestations of “evil spirits” would be checked at the door. Not this winter! They had their evergreens to last them throughout the season.
Yggdrasil: “The Cosmic tree par excellence”–E. O. James
At the root of the tree tradition may even be the Vikings’ belief in a “Tree of Life” they called Yggdrasil. Branches reaching towards the heavens, roots in the underworld– this cosmic tree stands at the center of Norse cosmology. There is no greater entity in their divine canon which holds together their entire cosmic concept. The most affecting aspect of Yggdrasil is perhaps its organic nature. Fragile, alive, mortal – when the Yggdrasil dies so do the gods. This tree needed attention, compassion, and protection.
The gods were well-aware of its preciousness; their own existence depended on it. There exists a moving story about Odin, also known as Father Yule, and this tree. By hanging himself from the tree, he offered himself as a sacrifice to the Tree of Life. Sound a little like Jesus?
History isn’t linear so we are not suggesting that this was the first of the first winter celebration tree. However, it very may well reflect a primal idea found in so many belief systems and in our living rooms. At the center of so many of our stories is a Tree of Life.
Cue the Christians
St. Boniface was responsible for converting the German pagans in the 8th century. He is also the man who cut down Thor’s tree. Sacrilege! Some credit this story surrounding this Christian saint as the origins of the Christmas tree.
Leaving his native England as a missionary, he headed to the Germanic areas in the Frankish Empire. One day, while he was taking a stroll, he happened to stumble upon some pagans about to sacrifice a young boy under an oak tree, considered to be Thor’s tree. That must have been quite the introduction.
In an undiplomatic move, St. Boniface went for the tree and chopped it down as a demonstration that their beliefs were false. Apparently, a fir tree magically appeared in its place, growing from the oak’s roots, or perhaps behind it. In any case, St. Boniface used this as some sort of proof that Christianity was more legit. This was enough to convince the pagans and together they decorated its branches with candles. However, the missionary appropriated many of their pre-existing traditions into Christian iconography. The evergreen came to symbolize Christ’s triumph over death.
The First Official “Christmas Tree”
By the 16th century, Germanic people were doing the same thing that their ancestors had, except now, they were bringing evergreen firs into their homes as a sign of their Christian faith.
The trees were called “paradise trees,” which referred to the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Life. Throughout the Renaissance, people famously put on “mystery plays” that reenacted scenes from the Bible. In the rooms where these dramatizations would occur, “paradise trees” would decorate the scene. On their branches were apples, which isn’t a giant leap from the round red balls that we now use.
Funny enough, it is believed that theologian Martin Luther – the principal figure behind the Protestant Reformation – came up with the idea for Christmas lights. One winter evening, they say, Luther was walking home from a sermon and was struck by the beauty of stars twinkling in the evergreens. In an effort to recreate the scene for his family at home, he put up a tree, wired and illuminated its branches.
When the Germans first started settling in the New World they brought the Christmas tree with them. Community trees were, allegedly, seen in Pennsylvania settlements as early as 1747.
Americans: “Christmas Trees Are Silly.”
Americans – whatever that meant at the time – were unimpressed. This idea of bringing trees inside did not catch on right away. Those weird “Germans” did that. In the words of Rob Geller (played by David Arquette) from Never Been Kissed to his sister “Josie Grossie” (played by Drew Barrymore) – “All you need is one person to think you’re cool and you’re in.” Like Josie Geller, the Christmas tree was not cool for quite some time. Historically, Americans have always been judgmental.
The Puritan Party Poopers
No offense to the Puritans, but they did, collectively, earn an odious definition for their namesake adjective: “Having or displaying censorious moral beliefs, especially about pleasure and sex.” We’ve gotten a lot of trauma out of them.
The German Christians weren’t Christian enough for the Puritans. Christmas was, after all, sacred to them which gave them permission to penalize anything that didn’t fit into their vision of Christmas. “Heathen traditions” such as Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any “joyful expression” were abominations. People were actually fined for hanging decorations. That lasted up until the 19th century when the numbers of immigrants coming into the country finally succeeded in drowning out that noise.
As we know from our research into the pagan origins of Santa Claus and his female reindeer, in the 19th century a vast number of traditions congealed to give us the Christmas package. Two seminal poems were published at the beginning of the 19th century, including Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Reindeer were brought over from Siberia to save the Inuit people in Alaska, and the Christmas tree finally got cool.
Branches Wide; Roots Deep
The history of the Christmas tree is vast and deep. We didn’t even go into the winter solstice trees of the Georgians and Polish but they too had their own ancient pagan traditions turned Christian. What began as a simple story quickly sent us on quite an adventure through time to discover just how meaningful the evergreen trees are.
Through the many winter solstice traditions, we find many iterations of the Tree of Life that we’ve long cherished as an enduring symbol of life itself. No matter how you decorate it.