Christmas Traditions > Christmas Tree

One of the most popular traditions associated with the celebration of Christmas, the Christmas tree is normally an evergreen coniferous tree that is brought in the house or used in the open and is decorated with lights and colourful ornaments during the days preceding and immediately following Christmas.

The tradition is most widely observed in the more northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere (north of about 45 degrees N latitude), where Christmas falls at a time when daylight hours are very short, and temperatures often below freezing (0 degrees C) with snow covering the ground. This is a continuance of the ancient pagan idea that the evergreen tree represents a celebration of the renewal of life at a time of death, darkness and cold at the winter solstice. A common decoration is a “Christmas ball”, a reflecting sphere of thin metal-coated glass, working as a reducing wide-angle mirror.

Like many other Christmas traditions, the universally-popular Christmas tree is derived from a fusion of Christian ideas with older pagan traditions. The custom originated in Germany. According to one legend, Saint Boniface attempted to introduce the idea of trinity to the pagan tribes using the Cone-shaped evergreen trees because of their triangular appearance.

The tradition of hanging decorations (representing fruit or gifts) on the trees is very old, with some early reports coming from Germany’s upper Rhine region, but the tradition of attaching candles is attributed to Martin Luther. A related tradition was hanging evergreen branches throughout the home. With time, these evergreen branches gave way to garlands, vines and wreaths.

Many cultures since then have expanded upon the use of the Christmas tree for celebrations. Residents of Strasbourg in the 16th century decorated fir trees during the Christmas season. The tradition seems to have spread throughout Europe and was most likely brought to the United States by German settlers. In 1923, United States president Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn.

UPDATE > The practice of tree worship has been found in many ancient cultures. Often, trees were brought indoors and decorated to ensure a good crop for the coming year. Trees have also been linked to divinity. Egyptians associated a palm tree with the god Baal-Tamar, while the Greeks and Romans believed that the mother of Adonis was changed into a fir tree. Adonis was one of her branches brought to life.

The modern Christmas tree was likely born in the 8th century, when St. Boniface was converting the Germanic tribes. The tribes worshipped oak trees, decorating them for the winter solstice. St. Boniface cut down an enormous oak tree, that was central to the worship of a particular tribe, but a fir tree grew in its place. The evergreen was offered as a symbol of Christianity, which the newly converted Germans began decorating for Christmas.

Prince Albert, who was German, introduced the Christmas tree to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840. German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought Christmas trees to America.

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