Contrary to popular belief, the Christmas tree wasn’t adapted from ancient European pagan beliefs. The Christmas tree had a more recent history than pagan practices of first-through-third centuries when pagan Germanic and Scandinavian tribes used the hawthorn or cherry trees or branches in their celebrations. Varieties of both hawthorn and cherry trees common to northern Europe were often deciduous, not evergreen, trees.
Most likely, use of Christmas trees started with medieval plays, popular from the early middle ages (476 AD) to the beginning of the Renaissance (c 1400 AD). Initially called morality, miracle, and mystery plays, these plays began in churches and taught Bible lessons for everyday life; that is, the plays had a moral. Plays that celebrated Jesus’ birth were linked to the creation story, primarily because Christmas eve was the feast day of Adam and Eve.
In nativity plays, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a Paradise tree. Paradise trees represented both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Holy Trinity Church). Paradise trees that symbolized the Tree of Knowledge were apple trees or decorated with apples to represent the forbidden fruit. While a Paradise tree that symbolized the Tree of Life was decorated with sweets; sweets round pastry wafers (cookies) symbolized the bread of the Eucharist. Because apple trees were deciduous trees and lost their leaves in winter, the tree evolved into being an evergreen tree.
Over time, the plays became raucous and were moved out of churches into public squares or town centers. Finally, when morality plays were suppressed altogether in the 15th-16th centuries, Paradise trees were moved into homes. Over time red balls substituted for apples, lights were added, and a Star of Bethlehem placed on the tree top.
Traditionally, the Christmas tree was set up on Christmas Eve and taken down on Twelfth Night, the Vigil of the Epiphany. Part of the reason keeping the Christmas tree up for only 12 days was to differentiate the Christmas tree from pagan trees, which often were planted in boxes and remained inside the home the entire winter months.
Christian scholars and historians aren’t sure when evergreen trees were first used as Christmas trees. Evergreen trees retain their green or blue-green color throughout the year, rather than changing color according to the seasons. In cold, snowy, dark winters in Europe, evergreen trees were a sign of everlasting life with God. By the end of the Middle ages, a common legend some Christian’s believed was that when Christ was born, near the shortest day of the year (December 25), every tree on earth produced new green shoots despite their ice and snow coverings.4
In 21st century United States, popular choices for Christmas trees are fir, pine, spruce, cypress, and cedar. Churches that understand that Christmas trees are distinct from pagan worship often include a 15–20 foot tree in their sanctuary. Below the evergreen tree are placed red poinsettia. What we think of as flaming red petals are poinsettia leaves. Poinsettias are a recent addition to Christmas decorations; but, perhaps, 100 years from now they will be part of Christmas traditions.
Reflection: Are you okay with having a Christmas tree in your home during Christmastide? What about having one in your church sanctuary?
Copyright 11/15/17: Carolyn A. Roth