What is the history of Christmas trees? What do they have to do with Jesus’ birth? Although the Christmas tree is full of symbolic meaning for the Christian tradition, there is no immediate connection between Jesus and this particular practice. In fact, the evergreen has a rich history of religious significance among pagan cultures, which is why some Christians have rejected the tradition outright. Despite its pagan beginnings, the symbolism of the evergreen easily finds parallels in the gospel stories, which is why the tree has figured within the Christmas tradition for over 500 years.
Pagan Worship and Sacred Trees
The Solstice Evergreen
Long before it was incorporated into the Christian tradition, the Solstice Evergreen was a common pagan symbol in many cultures throughout the world. Ranging from prehistoric Japan to Northern Africa, from Native America to Medieval Germany, it signified the persistence of new life amid the darkness of winter.
As the name implies, these “evergreens” never withered or died with the onset of winter. They were therefore perceived by pagan cultures as a metaphor for the undying gods of the natural world: “Just as the Midwinter fires celebrated the longed for return of the sun, so did the evergreen tree signify the continuing presence of burgeoning life in the midst of Winter’s sleep of death.”
The solstice evergreen was therefore a reminder of the life that never dies, and continues “even when the sun is at its lowest ebb.”
Pagan Harvest Rituals
In addition to the rituals surrounding the solstice evergreen, many cultures conducted harvest rituals that included the adornment of trees. For example, during the first two centuries following Christ’s birth, Romans celebrated the festival of “Saturnalia,” honoring Saturnus, the god of agriculture, by decorating trees with trinkets and candles.” To the north, the ancient Druids of England, France and Ireland “decorated oak trees with fruit and candles to honor their gods of harvest.”
Of particular significance to modern day practice is the mythology and practice of the ancient Germanic tribes. The Christmas tree tradition of today is commonly traced back to Germany, an area inhabited by Germanic tribes whose mythology incorporated sacred trees. Among the most notable of these “patron trees” were Thor’s Oak and the mythological Yggdrasil.
The festivities associated with these trees were, however, of a darker sort. Consistent with Norse mythology’s emphasis on the number nine, pagan kings are recorded as having sacrificed nine animals or slaves every ninth year by suspending them from the branches of trees.
The History and Legend of Saint Boniface
As already mentioned, the modern tradition of the Christmas tree traces its roots to Germany. It was in Germany where the Christian tradition famously collided with pagan ritual. In particular, the actions of St. Boniface, an English Bishop who lived from 675 to 754, are often cited as the source of the custom.
Known as “The Apostle of the Germans,” St Boniface settled in the German region of Hesse during the eighth century. He arrived as a missionary on behalf of the Church of Rome. After a period of successful ministry, Boniface temporarily left his mission to confer with Pope Gregory II (715-731) in Rome.
Upon his return to Germany for the Christmas of 723, Boniface was appalled to learn that the Germans had reverted to their former idolatrous ways. He found them in the midst of preparing for the Winter Solstice by sacrificing a young man under Odin’s sacred oak tree. In an enraged response reminiscent of Moses at Mount Sinai, Bishop Boniface took up an axe and cut down the mighty tree.
This event, which is historically documented, has come to symbolize the triumph of Christianity in Germany over the pagan divinities. What follows, however, is more likely to be the result of legend.
Legend has it that at the first blow of the axe, a strong gust of wind instantly brought down the tree: “The astounded Germans fearfully recognized the hand of God in this event and humbly asked Boniface how they should celebrate Christmas. The Bishop, the legend continues, pointed to a small fir tree that had miraculously remained upright and intact beside the debris and broken branches of the fallen oak. Boniface was familiar with the popular custom of taking an evergreen plant into the house in winter and asked everyone to take home a fir tree. This tree signifies peace, and as an evergreen it also symbolizes immortality; with its top pointing upwards, it additionally indicates heaven, the dwelling place of God.”
Other legends also describe St. Boniface as using the shape of the evergreen tree in a lesson on the Christian faith. The cone-shaped evergreens had a triangular appearance, which St. Boniface allegedly referenced to introduce the notion of the Trinity.
The Emergence of a New Christian Tradition
The First Christmas Trees
The city of Riga, Latvia, claims to be the home of the first Christmas tree. To this day, an octagonal plaque sits in the town square with the following words: “The First New Years Tree in Riga in 1510.” This declaration appears in eight different languages.
Around this same time period, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small tree in his house to symbolize the way the stars shined at night. There is, however, some debate as to whether this event occurred before or after the Riga holiday tree.
In addition to the history of Riga, our modern custom can also be traced to 16th century Germany. The earliest recorded reference of a Christmas tree comes from a Breme guild chronicle of 1570, describing a small fir erected in the guild house and decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers. The tree was erected for the benefit of the guild members’ children, who collected the treats on Christmas day. Another early reference is from Basel in 1597, where the tailor apprentices decorated a tree with apples and cheese.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact birth of the Christmas tree tradition, it is clear that it emerged in the 16th century, in or around Germany. By the 17th century, the custom had spread to the extent that some German families erected trees in their own homes.
The Tradition Spreads Beyond Germany
By the early 18th century, the Christmas tree custom had become common in towns of the upper Rhineland, but it had not yet spread to rural areas. The Catholic majority in the lower Rhine regarded the practice as a Protestant custom, but it eventually spread south when Prussian officials were moved there in the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Before the end of the century, the Roman Catholic Church would officially recognize the practice.
In the early 19th century, Christmas trees became popular among the nobility and spread to royal courts as far as Russia. Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg introduced the Christmas tree to Vienna in 1816, and the custom spread across Austria in the following years. In France, the first Christmas tree was introduced in 1840 by the duchess of Orleans.
Around the same time, King George III’s German wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced the Christmas tree to Britain. However the custom did not spread beyond the royal family for some time. As a child, Queen Victoria was familiar with the tradition, describing it her journal on the Christmas Eve of 1832. The then 13-year-old princess wrote, “After dinner…we went into the drawing-room near the dining-room…There were two large round tables on which were place two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.” Only after he married her German cousin, Prince Albert, did the custom become even more widespread.
An American Tradition is Born
Images of the royal family with the Christmas tree at Osborne House were illustrated in English magazines, initially as woodcut in the Illustrated London News of December 1848, and copied in the United States during the Christmas of 1850. These prints of the British royal family helped popularize the Christmas tree in Britain, as well as the American upper class.
In addition to the influence of the British, German immigrants also had a hand in introducing the tradition to the United States. Although there is some dispute as to which American city was the first to have a Christmas tree, Bethlehem, PA appears to have had the first decorated Christmas tree in 1747 at the German Moravian Church settlement. However, this original “tree” was assembled by placing evergreen branches on a wooden pyramid.
Other American cities with claims to the original Christmas tree include Windsor Locks, CT, with a date of 1777, and Easton, PA with a date of 1816.
The Christian Significance of the Tree
It is clear from the history of the Christmas tree that its origins are undeniably pagan. Consistent with Christian tradition, the evergreen originally figured in pagan worship, later to be adapted and Christianized by the church. Even so, the tree is a natural symbol for the Christmas tradition. As one Catholic publication explained,
“Today, The Christmas tree can be the symbol of the peace that Jesus brought, that must be re-established between God and human beings. Because it is evergreen, it is the symbol of that immortality which Jesus said he possessed and would bring to us: “I am the life; those who believe in me even if they die will live.” The tree lit by little lights is the symbol of the light that Jesus brought to the world with his birth: “He was the light that shines in the darkness… and enlightens every man…” (cf. Jn 1:4-14). And finally, the fir tree, with its tip pointing to heaven, indicates God’s presence to us and the place where we are.
 Matthews, John and Caitlin Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas, Godsfield Press, Wheaton, IL, 1998, p. 78