The Ancient History and Meaning of the Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree Legends

There are several legends associated with how Christmas trees came into existence. The first comes from the English monk Boniface. In the eighth century, Germanic pagans were making sacrifices to the Greek god, Thor. The Benedictine monk cut down the oak tree where the sacrifices were taking place and converted the idolaters to Christianity. According to the legend, a fir tree grew from the fallen oak. The evergreen represented the image of God and new life in Christ.

Another legend of the Christmas tree stems from Martin Luther. Some believe the Protestant revolutionary started lighting candles in trees after walking through the woods on a snowy night. The sight of the moon hitting the snow-glistened trees reminded him of the light of Christ that came down from Heaven. It is also from this experience that inspired him to pen the lyrics to the 1535 Christmas hymn, From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Christmas tree was seen as a primarily pagan tradition in the United States. The early Puritan settlers did not accept the German tradition initially because of its cultic roots. In 1659, a law was established in Massachusetts outlawing the celebration of Christmas, with the exception of church attendance. Hanging decorations of any kind was outlawed, especially on Christmas trees. As more German immigrants entered America, the tradition became more accepted.

In 1848, the London News published an image of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their family celebrating around their decorated tree. This photo and its reprints in America popularized the modern idea of the Christmas tree, with its glistening lights, shiny bobbles, and awaiting presents.

Since the 19th century, Americans have embraced the evergreen tree as an annual staple to Christmas cheer. The lighting of the tree in Rockefeller center, as well in other hometowns often symbolizes the beginning of the holiday season.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Diego Grandi

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