Surrounded by legends the origin of the Christmas tree has been under great debate throughout history. Serving as a universal symbol of hope and happiness the decorated Christmas tree is currently enjoyed by people from diverse backgrounds and differing beliefs. The true power of the Christmas tree lies within its ability to inspire camaraderie and encourage hope. But where did the tradition of the Christmas tree originate?
Christian lore embraces the story of an English monk named Saint Boniface who in 722 walked the French and German country sides spreading the word of Christ. Several versions of the story have been passed down throughout history. One version claims that Saint Boniface chopped down a great oak tree that had served as a shrine to the Norse God Thor in order to save the life of a child about to be sacrificed by his worshippers. Another version claims he cut it down to disprove the legitimacy of the Norse Gods to the local German people of that time.
Shortly after having cut it down a fir tree was reported to have grown from the base of the great oak. It was announced by Saint Boniface that the fir was indisputable proof of the savior Jesus Christ and his promise of eternal life. He declared the fir a holy tree and that it should be treated as such.
It has been suggested that Martin Luther is responsible for the origin of the Christmas tree tradition as we celebrate it today. The story tells of Martin Luther’s walk through the woods during the evening hours. He became so entranced by the beauty of the stars twinkling through the branches of the evergreen trees that he decided to share this experience with his family and friends. Cutting down a small tree he carried it home and attempted to replicate the beautiful vision that had enthralled him. He placed candles upon the branches in an attempt to replicate the vision of the starlight shining through the trees as he had witnessed. He went on to establish the Christmas tree as a symbol of the Tree of Life, the very structure that graced the Garden of Eden.
The Brotherhood of the Blackheads
During the 15th and 16th centuries in the areas of present day Estonia, Latvia and Germany it is theorized that the custom of erecting the Christmas tree may well have originated with the Brotherhood of the Blackheads. This brotherhood was composed primarily of young, unmarried merchants and ship captains whose patron saint was a black African moor by the name of Saint Maurice. The legend claims that they erected a tree in the brotherhood house in Revel (present day Tallinn). On the last evening of the celebrations during the winter solstice it was reported that the brotherhood carried the tree into the middle of the town square and erected it. In celebration they danced around it sharing its symbolism and beauty with all that were present.
Some historians claim the idea that eventually evolved into the present day Christmas tree originated specifically from pagan beliefs. Egyptians were known to bring green date palms into their homes during the winter solstice to celebrate life over death. Romans worshipped Saturn, the god of agriculture, and used evergreen branches in their ceremonies during the feast of Saturn to celebrate the season. Druids were known to place branches of evergreens above their doorways during the seasonal change to ward off evil spirits.
The implementation of the Christmas tree, however it may have originated, made a slow progression across Europe. Due to extreme religious strife and violent wars its use and symbolization were banned and re-implemented many times over the ages. It finally made its way to America although the exact manner by which it was introduced is still debated.
Introduction to America
Some historians speculate that the Hessians introduced the Christmas tree when they arrived during the American Revolution. The Hessians were German soldiers commissioned by the British to aid in quelling the American revolt. Some Hessians sided with the British while others joined the Americans in their cause. In Germany the erection of the Christmas tree during the holiday season was a common practice. It is believed that they may have introduced the tradition to the Americans at this time. Other historians claim that it came over much later with the immigration of Germans to America around the 1800’s.
Due to constant religious strife especially in a young country such as America the Christmas tree did not immediately take root in our holiday traditions. It took a great deal of time and cultural evolution but eventually the Christmas tree became a very common symbol of the holiday season. For some it is a symbol of the Christian faith; for others it serves as homage to mother Earth and all that she provides to us; and still others view it as a symbol of aspiration and prosperity for the coming year. Due to our diverse beliefs the Christmas tree’s origin is in constant contention. However, the one thing that appears universal is that the Christmas tree serves as a symbol of hope and happiness. Happy holidays!