Christmas Tree, the Evergreen Symbol of the Holiday Season

Niina Pekantytär

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Throughout history, people in the northern hemisphere celebrated the Winter solstice between December 21st and 22nd. They decorated their homes, particularly doors and windows with ever-green tree branches to please their gods. In many cultures, it was believed that the sun itself was a good who got weak and sick during the long winter and returned in the spring stronger each day. Winter solstice was believed to be the time when the sun returned to its strength. Evergreen plants served as a reminder that soon sun would return and all life would flourish again.

One of the earliest records about winter solstice celebration comes from ancient Egypt where people worshipped sun god Ra, who had ahead of a hawk and sun as his crown. During winter solstice when Ra would recover from his illness ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with palm rushes which for them symbolized life defeating death.

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Roman Saturnalia

Saturnalia was one of the biggest festivals celebrated in ancient Rome between the 17th and 25th of December. Saturnalia was celebrated to honour Saturn the god of agriculture. To honour the god and the fact that soon farms and fields would be green and fruitful they decorated their homes with green branches. During Saturnalia no one could be prosecuted for breaking the law, killing, raping or injuring others. A lot of people took advantage of this time of lawlessness but Saturnalia was also time to remember others by giving them small gifts.

In the early days of the Christian church, the birth of Jesus was set to be the last day of Saturnalia. This was an attempt created by the early Roman Christians to convert pagans into Christianity. There are many suggestions made when Jesus was really born (they vary from Easter to Summer Solstice) majority of the modern-day church history scholars and researchers agree that Jesus was not born near Winter Solstice and not even in December.

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Winter Solstice

​Among (at least in) Germanic, Celtic and Slavic pagan cultures there was a habit to decorate homes with evergreen branches around the winter solstice. Many times green branches were used as the symbol of the world tree. World-tree is an early shamanic concept. Belief for that world was made of several different layers and those layers were held together by the world tree. The number of layers varied between 3 to 17 depending on the belief system. In the northern hemisphere branches from evergreen trees also symbolized the rebirth of nature and everlasting life bringing hope for people about the coming spring.

In the Germanic Yule celebration a conifer tree was most popular because the trunk was used for making the Yule log. Spruce trees especially were also connected to several highly respected forest deities and spirits. Pine cones and sprigs were used to decorate homes.

Around the area of the Baltic sea people widely worshipped trees. In Finland, people had the custom to bring sacrificial gifts under the spirit tree during the winter solstice.

Christmas Tree and Reformation

​The Catholic church did not approve pagan custom to bring tree branches inside. Protestant church approved the custom and tree branches were seen as a symbol of wealth. When in Catholic traditions native scenes were the official symbols of Christmas, Christmas tree became the official holiday symbol for the protestants. According to Christian mythology, an angel appeared to the shepherds and told about the birth of Jesus. This is why in Christian tradition there is either angel or a star at the top of the Christmas tree. Sometimes Christmas tree is told to symbolize the tree of paradise and Christmas balls represent forbidden fruits.

In the 16th century, Christmas trees received more and more popularity and even the most puritan clergymen had to face the fact that the custom was here to stay. According to the legend German priest Martin Luther who became the founder of the Lutheran church was on his way home to Wittenberg one winter night and he saw a beautiful spruce tree and a star shining bright above it. He was so touched by what he saw that he took one of the trees inside his home and put candles on the tree branches. The story was spread across his congregation and later on after reformation soon all protestant countries in Central Europe had their own Christmas tree tradition. The tradition spread into the United States in the 18th century together with German soldiers.

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Christmas tree tradition arrived in Scandinavian countries in the 19th century. The first mention of a Christmas tree in Finland is from 1829. A baron from Helsinki bought eight Christmas trees to decorate his home with. The first people who adopted the Christmas tree tradition were clergymen and noblemen. It was not until the 20th century when Christmas tree tradition spread to all Finnish homes.

​Decorating Christmas trees started in the Middle Ages. Baltic countries Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (together with Scandinavian countries) were the last countries in Europe that were converted into Christianity. In Baltic countries merchants traditionally decorated tree branches for the winter solstice celebration. In the 16th century in Germany and in Switzerland the handcraft-er guilds decorated twigs with sweets and they were given as gifts for other guilds. Early Christmas tree decorations were all eatable like apples, nuts and sweets. Nowadays the majority of Christmas ornaments are made of plastic and the topics vary a great deal. The most common ones are different kinds of Christmas balls, stars, angels and elves.

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Real Tree Or Plastic Tree?

Before Christmas trees became the official symbol of Christmas it was a custom that was only available for the richest families. Some people might even have more than one tree. Many times the Christmas tree was an exotic decoration. Sometimes people even had competitions with their neighbours on who´s tree was the most handsome. Wealthy families might even have a Christmas tree in every room. Tiny trees were placed on shelf’s or hung on the ceiling. The big tree was placed into the living room and it was also a status symbol. More handsome tree the wealthier owner. When custom spread into the homes of the Middle class their trees were usually small and placed into the middle of the table. When demand for the Christmas trees grew the size of the trees grew as well.

Christmas trees did not please all people. There were political and religious groups who banned Christmas trees and were convinced that they were an attempt to destroy people´s moralities. Trees were not always considered safe. Some of the arguments were accurate such as decorating trees with actual candles which might lead to fires. Electric lights became more popular in Christmas trees in the 19th century. The world´s first Christmas tree with electric lights was on display in New York in 1882.

​There are special Christmas tree farms where quality Christmas trees are being grown. If you happen to own some forest you can easily get a tree from your own land. We are living times of environmental awareness and more families have Christmas trees made of plastic that can be used year after year. Unfortunately, a plastic Christmas tree does not have the scent of an actual spruce tree. One great tip to get that real scent is to ask the Christmas tree sellers if you could take some of the branches with you and they usually give branches away for free. Last year I placed a bunch of branches into a bucket filled with water and decorated them with Christmas lights and red and golden balls. After the holidays you can burn branches or you can throw them into bio-recycling.

Christmas tree decorations vary in different cultures. In many English speaking countries, people like flashing colourful lights. I try to spend all my Christmas holidays in Finland with my family. There December-January is the darkest time of the year maybe that explains why in Scandinavian countries people prefer bright lights over coloured ones.

For people living in the cities, the Christmas tree can be a symbol of the forest and remind of the nature connection. Christmas tree has both pagan and Christian origins. Then again Christmas as a holiday is a mixture of different customs and beliefs. I come from a very non-religious family and for us, Christmas mostly means good food and hanging out with friends and family. Our Christmas tree is filled with Disney and Moomin ornaments and decorations bought around Europe. Christmas tree can tell a lot about the personalities of those who decorate it.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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