History of the Christmas Tree

By Shani Asokan | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 4 2021
Teen inc History of the Christmas Tree

By Shani Asokan 

Ceylon Today Features 

The tradition of lugging a giant fir, pine or spruce tree indoors to be lit up and decorated goes far back in human history.  The first use of these evergreens can be traced back to their symbolic use in ancient Egypt and Rome, and then to ancient Germany, where candlelit evergreens were installed in celebration of Christmas. In fact, the use of ‘Christmas trees’ or something in a similar vein, existed long before the holiday came to be celebrated in Christian tradition. Trees that remained green even as the seasons changed were held in special regard.

Just as we decorate our homes with pine, spruce and fir trees, during the festive season, people of old hung boughs of these evergreen trees over their doors and windows throughout the winter months. It was believed that the trees that remained green throughout the bitter cold kept away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and anything else that goes bump in the night. 

Tracing its roots

 In the Northern hemisphere, the longest night of the year is called the winter solstice. It is generally considered to be symbolic of the change in seasons and that the worst of winter is over. In ancient times, people believed that the sun was a god, and that winter was a period when the sun god became weak and ill.

 So, winter solstice was celebrated because it signified that the sun god would soon get better and stronger. Evergreens were symbolic of the plants that would soon begin to grow as spring came. Ancient Egyptians worshipped a sun god, called Ra. They believed that Ra began to recover on winter solstice, and they filled their homes with green palms which symbolized the triumph of life over death. 

Early Romans marked the occasion with a feast. They called it Saturnalia, celebrating Saturn, the god of agriculture. To the Romans, the solstice meant that soon their farms and orchards would thrive, lush with fruits and vegetable. In honour of the holiday, they decorated their homes with evergreen boughs. 

In Northern Europe, Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs, as a symbol of long life. Similarly, the Vikings of Scandinavia thought evergreens were a special plant of their sun god, Balder.  

A German tradition

 The Christmas tree tradition as we know it today began in Germany, in the 16th century. Some Christians during this time brought conifers into their homes and decorated them in celebration of Christmas. 

Others brought in piles of wood that they decorated with evergreen boughs and candles. It is widely believed that Martin Luther, a well-known Protestant reformer at the time was the first to add lit candles to a tree. He got the idea on his walk home one night, when he saw the stars peeking out from between the evergreens that lined the street he was walking down. 

To recapture this scene for his family at home, he used wire to attach lit candles to the branches of an evergreen that he erected in the middle of the main room of his house. 

Trees around the world

 German settlers took the tradition of the Christmas tree with them.

The first record of a Christmas tree on display in America, was in the 1830s. This tradition was not generally accepted at first, as it was seen as a pagan symbol. 

The tradition was also taken to Canada, when German settlers migrated north from the United States. The Christmas tree arrived in Great Britain shortly after, when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband put up a Christmas tree in Windsor castle in 1848. Though this may not have been the first time a Christmas tree was erected in a home in the country, it was after this that they became a popular Christmas tradition. 

It is likely that the tradition of the Christmas tree spread to Asia and other parts of the world through colonialism. When the British arrived in their soon to be colonies (like Sri Lanka), they brought with them their religion, traditions, and culture. 

They spread Protestantism, a form of Christianity, and with this, it is likely that they brought their Christmas traditions as well. Today, we have a range of options when it comes to Christmas trees, from ‘real’ trees, to plastic ones, and ones that come with their own LED lights. Regardless of which tree we choose to have in our homes on Christmas, it is also important that we understand and remember the humble beginnings of this tradition that brings so much joy and festivity into our homes each Christmas season.

By Shani Asokan | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 4 2021

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