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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 has Biblical references. Many cultures had used trees to celebrate life's renewal. 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 and gave hope for spring's return. Thus evergreens became symbols of life and renewal and in Old Norse mythology evergreens were equated with the great mother goddess that gave life. 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. Caroling derives from Yule singing and celebration. The burning of Yule logs was applied to symbolize the life giving force of fire (Figure 1). 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 from the spark present in the Yule logs, then it would renew the land and trees would blossom in the spring, giving life and providing for people.
Associations with Christmas
The date of Christmas chosen by the Roman Catholic Church was selected because many societies converting to Christianity had celebrated the solstice and many gods, such as Mithras and others, were born on December 25th. Thus, policies of including pagan traditions with that of the birth of Jesus made conversions relatively easier. With Christmas trees, there likely was, at least initially, also a similar policy of integrating pagan ideas with Christian holidays, as Nordic peoples began to convert to Christianity in greater numbers in the late 1st millennium AD. However, Christmas was not universally, even in Nordic countries, applied with a Christmas tree. This might mean that for some period Christmas trees may have had some meaning to people, particularly with their old traditions before they converted, where they remembered people and the renewal of life. Christmas trees do not seem to be associated with the home in the centuries after many Norse societies converted.
During the late Medieval period and early modern period, by around the 16th century, we begin to see the use of Christmas trees more frequently or in direct association with Christmas. After the Protestant Reformation, Christmas trees in Germany began to be brought into the home and placed as a way to remember life and renewal along with Christmas. Although nobody knows for sure why, one possibility is that the clergy began to see Christmas trees as heathen practice from pre-Christian traditions, forcing people to bring them to their homes to hide them. In other traditions, Martin Luther himself is credited with decorating Christmas trees with candles to symbolize the starts and making them popular as part of the home, but this might not be likely given the fact evergreens were decorated already during the Old Norse period and in their earlier traditions.
By 1605, the city of Strasburg was recorded to have Christmas trees decorating places and homes with other associations that we now consider part of the Christmas tradition, such as chocolate covered apples, sweets, and other foods and presents. In the 17th century, many places continued to shun the Christmas tree, seeing it as a symbol of paganism. However, the popularity of the trees never went away. In particular, Christmas was seen as a solemn event by many of the clergy and reveling and feasting, derived from Yule, went against the ideas of Christmas to many. Perhaps to accommodate a strong popular demand, some of the clergy began associating Christmas trees with Christ and the coming of Jesus to save the world. Singing Christmas songs celebrating the birth of Christ replaced drinking and other songs sung during Yule. However, throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries, only mostly in Germany was Christmas associated with Christmas trees.
Credit for spreading the idea of a Christmas tree as a way to decorate the home during Christmas likely originates with Queen Victoria of Britain and German settlers who began to migrate to North America. Queen Victoria married a German husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who had in his traditions the use of Christmas trees during Christmas. Victoria herself was of German origin and had Christmas trees in her home as she grew up. After she was married, Queen Victoria began to circulate images of her family celebrating Christmas, with the Christmas tree shown, helping to make the imagery popular among the British public (Figure 2).
As the royal family in Britain had a public role as symbols of the country, people began to mimic their practices. This included Christmas trees, where wealthier classes and up and coming classes began to decorate their homes with Christmas trees in response to the royal family's use of the trees. Soon charities even were established that provided poorer children with access to seeing or having Christmas trees. Thus, many classes soon began adopting Christmas trees and also associating Christmas with children and gift giving, which derived from the Norse tradition used in Germany. As Victoria's children married into other European royal families, this also helped spread the use of Christmas trees.
In North America, German soldiers under British command, already by the late 18th century during the American Revolution, began to use Christmas trees in Quebec and perhaps in the Colonies themselves, although most Revolutionaries would not have decorated their homes with Christmas trees. The first recorded use of a Christmas tree in the United States may have been by a Hessian soldier imprisoned in Connecticut in 1777. By the early 19th century, Christmas trees began to become more common in the United States as more German immigrants came to the United States. With technology rapidly developing in the late 19th century as the Industrial Revolution developed, electricity became available in many places. This led to the idea of decorating trees with electric lights by Edward H. Johnson, vice president in the Edison Electrical Light Company, where in 1882 he decorated his Christmas tree at home with electrical lights in New York City.
Initially, Christmas trees were decorated with apples, sweets and sometimes other ornaments. The round shapes of apples, in particular, were continued as glass and later plastic balls were used to decorate trees. In Germany, glass making industries began to specialize in colorful round and other types of decorations that were applied to trees, which then spread in popularity in other regions. The origin of tree-toppers or decorations at the top of the tree likely originates from the Victorian period, when the Queen and her family decorated their tree with an angel and later traditions began to use stars.
Christmas trees have long symbolized life and renewal. In many ways, they still do through the Christmas stories and how many families choose to decorate them. With marketing and spread of globalization, Christmas trees now transcend Christian traditions and are popular among many cultures. Later traditions began to add "fake" snow and other sorts of decorations; however, many popular aspects of Christmas, including caroling and foods we eat, have an ancient origin in relation to celebration around the feast of Yule that Christmas later adopted. What was once a relatively solemn holiday began to change to something celebrated as a happy time of year.
- For more on Yule, see: Morrison, D. (2000). Yule: a celebration of light & warmth. St. Paul, Minn: Llewellyn Publications.
- For more on Christmas traditions and their origins, see: Dues, G. (2000). Catholic customs & traditions: a popular guide (Rev. ed). Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, pg. 56.
- For more on early Christianity and Old Norse traditions, see: Andrén, A. (Ed.). (2006). Old norse religion in long-term perspectives: origins, changes, and interactions ; an international conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3 - 7, 2004. Lund: Nordic Acad. Press.
- For more on the origin of Christmas trees and Christmas, see: Brunner, B. (2012). Inventing the Christmas tree. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- For more on the early history of Christmas trees and its controversy, see: Roy, C. (2005). Traditional festivals: a multicultural encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, pg. 69.
- For more on Victoria and the spread of the Christmas tree tradition, see: Rappaport, H. (2003). Queen Victoria: a biographical companion. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, pg. 91.
- For more on developments of Christmas in North America, see: Baines, D. (1997). Christmas Traditions and Legends. Bookpartners.
- For more on Christmas tree decorations and their change, see: Brenner, R. (1985). Christmas past: a collectors’ guide to its history and decorations. West Chester, Pa: Schiffer Pub.