Long before the advent of Christianity, plants, and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, evergreens were believed to keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmas time.Encyclopædia Britannica
Ancient Egyptians decorated their homes and temples with evergreen wreaths and trees in celebration of life, peace, and opulence during the solstice. They believed that the evergreens helped their sun god, Ra, recover from the illness of winter to grow stronger and brighter. The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia.
In Northern Europe, priests of the Celts would decorate their druid temples with evergreens to symbolize their everlasting life with God. Druids also hung sprigs over their doorways and windows (or mistletoes) to keep evil spirits and diseases away during the winter.
‘Paradise Trees’ (branches or wooden frames decorated with apples) were used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches during Advent and on Christmas Eve. In early church calendars of saints, December 24 was Adam and Eve’s day. The Paradise Tree represented the Garden of Eden. It was often paraded around the town before the play started, as a way of advertising the play. Several countries claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree, and there are competing mythologies that seek to explain what it all means.
Latvia and Estonia both claim to have been home to the first Christmas tree. Latvia traces its Christmas tree traditions back to 1510 when a merchant guild called the House of the Black Heads carried a tree through the city, decorated it, and later burned it down. Meanwhile, Estonia has countered those claims, saying it has evidence of a similar festival hosted by the very same guild in its capital city Tallinn in 1441. In the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, there is a plaque which is engraved with “The First New Year’s Tree in Riga in 1510”, in eight languages.
A picture from Germany in 1521 shows a tree being paraded through the streets with a man riding a horse behind it. The man is dressed as a bishop, possibly representing St. Nicholas. Historical records indicate that a Christmas tree was raised in the Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539—and that the tradition had grown so popular throughout the region that the city of Freiburg banned felling trees for Christmas in 1554.
Christmas tree decoration became fashionable in the UK during Queen Victoria’s reign, most notably in 1848 when a picture was published in the Illustrated London News of the Royal Family. In an elaborate image, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family were pictured at Windsor Castle standing beside a large tree adorned with glass ornaments hailing from Prince Albert’s native Germany. Since Queen Victoria was very popular in Britain, many around the world—including those in America—started accepting the tradition, leading to Christmas trees becoming part of our yearly holiday routine.
- Ra was the ancient Egyptian deity of the sun. By the Fifth Dynasty, in the 25th and 24th centuries BC, he had become one of the most important gods in ancient Egyptian religion, identified primarily with the noon-day sun. Ra ruled in all parts of the created world: the sky, the earth, and the underworld. He was the god of the sun, order, kings, and the sky. [Back]
- Saturnalia is an ancient Roman festival and holiday in honor of the god Saturn, held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to December 23. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves as it was seen as a time of liberty for both slaves and freedmen alike. A common custom was the election of a “King of the Saturnalia”, who would give orders to people, which were to be followed and preside over the merrymaking. The gifts exchanged were usually gag gifts or small figurines made of wax or pottery known as sigillaria. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days”. [Back]