How Did Christmas Trees Become Christmas Symbols?
Christmas trees, which are a variety of fir, pine, and spruce trees, are closely linked with the visuals most of us have for Christmas. However, in many ways, the symbol of the Christmas tree seems surprising for the story of Christmas. The development of the Christmas tree as a key symbol begins before Christianity and only long after Christianity established itself in Europe did it become associated with Christmas.
Early Developments Before Christianity
In Northern Hemispheres of Europe, including in Germany, Scandinavia, and other parts of Northern Europe, Yule was traditionally among the most important holidays in the pre-Christian calendar. The Tree of Life is a symbol in many ancient cultures that also as Biblical references. In Northern Hemispheres, much of the landscape would become bleak and short on food during winter. The winter solstice, December 21-22, was celebrate as Yule. This was often a time of feasting and even sacrifice to give thanks to the gods and anticipate renewal of the land as the days begin to get longer and winter ends.
Fir, pine and other evergreen trees were often the only green color present in the landscape, indicating that they had life in them during the depths of winter. The evergreens became symbols of life and renewal and in Old Norse mythology, with evergreens equated with the great mother goddess. Hanging reefs in one's home and other parts of the evergreens was a way to bring luck to the home during a period when death and want were likely.
While Christmas trees are clearly associated with the tree of life from Old Norse mythology, other aspects of Christmas may also link. For instance, Yule trees may have been decorated with lights, particularly candles, to symbolize the stars. Other decorations may have been put around trees in the Old Norse tradition as a way to remember those who died during the year. These decorations could have been personal items or implements that were simply hung around the tree. Gifts placed under or near the Yule trees may have symbolized gifts given to the gods as a token of thanks and offering for blessing in the coming year. The burning of Yule logs was applied to symbolize the life giving force of fire. The idea was that the sun after solstice would begin to gain strength, similar to a sick person gaining strength. As the sun gained strength, then it would renew the land and trees would blossom in the spring, giving life and providing for people.