Christians love to put up a Christmas tree before the 25th of December. Many think of it as traditional. Depending on how narrow minded one is, the tradition is either not very old, or rather older than one imagines. The Christmas tree has a history. It was promoted, demoted, forbidden and it developed to its modern form through many stages. Some of its Christian symbolism has even been completely lost.
Evergreen plants have held a special attraction for humans from times immemorial. Staying green through a bitter cold and snowy winter, they came to embody the hope for spring and warmth, when all plants would become green again and bear fruit. Accordingly, conifers and other evergreen plants were used as decorations and were decorated in turn.
When Pope Julius declared the first Christmas for December 25th in 350, the date was carefully chosen to coincide with the feast day for the birth of Mithra Sol Invictus. Emperor Aurelian had declared the same date as ‘Natalis Invictis Solis’ (Birth of the Unconquered Sun). As Christ had already inherited the halo from Mithra (plus some other bits and pieces), it was only fitting he should take over his birthday as well. The move was part politics, as most Roman troops were believers in Mithra, and part formal take-over where Mithra and Christ were effectively co-joined to ease conversion. And evergreens were ever present at the festivities for Mithra.
As the conversion to Christianity progressed to eventually include all of Europe, some pagan beliefs were integrated into the faith, mostly by making ancient gods and goddesses into imaginary saints or fusing them into existing ones. Other pagan beliefs were too typical to stomach and were discarded. The belief in Yggdrasil, the tree of life of the Germans, was repressed, and in 800, Charlemagne even forbade the illumination of trees to get rid of the last vestiges of ‘superstition’ and for good measure cut down any tree under suspicion of being holy. But further north, the Tree of Light and the Wreath of Light both persisted in honor of St. Lucia, goddess demoted saint by the church.
If any of these pagan rituals may claim direct ancestry to the Christmas tree is doubtful, but they illustrate how old ideas may spark new ones at least. The first written proof for a spread of Christmas trees appears in 1570 in Bremen, Germany. The guilds there put up little trees decorated with dates, apples, and nuts, which were harvested by children on Christmas day. Around the turn of the century, the journeymen of the guilds of Basel, Switzerland, are reported to receive trees, apples and cheese as a gift from the guilds. The trees were paraded through town from the guild halls to their lodgings where they put up the trees and decorated them with apples and cheese.
The earliest mention of a single Christmas tree dates from 1539, when one was put up in the Cathedral of Strasbourg, Alsace. Martin Luther promoted the Christmas tree to distinguish Protestants’ Christmas from Catholics’ who put up the nativity scene as a decoration. The Catholic Church was even moved to outlaw the Christmas tree for being a ‘heathen superstition’. It did this not as one might expect for reason of faith but because it owned vast tracts of forest, and it strongly disapproved of losing money to a frivolity when people went to pick their own tree not quite legally.
Duchess Dorothea of Brieg is credited as the first to introduce candles to the Christmas tree in 1611. The Christmas tree continued its small revolution, a revolution from the top, one has to admit. It was the rich aristocrats and the equally rich guilds which were able to provide the trees. Rich merchants and other citizens followed. During the war between Germany and France in 1870 and 1871, Christmas trees were put in hospitals and field hospitals to cheer up the wounded and found their way into every home afterwards. The White House puts up a Christmas tree for public display since 1891 and is probably responsible for that particular tradition to come back to Europe where the first public tree ‘for the poor’ was put up in Weimar in 1924.
Until late in the 19th century, trees in northern Germany were decorated with apples, the figures of Adam and Eve as well as the snake, to represent the tree of forbidden fruit in Paradise. Traditionally, Christmas Eve was a day to remember Adam and Eve and a play about Paradise would be put up in church. Putting up ornaments instead of fruit and sweet cakes started in 1830 when the first ornaments were produced in Germany.
The Catholic Church lifted its ban on trees only after the Second World War, and the putting up of the tree on St. Peter’s Square only became an event under Pope John-Paul II. The Vatican tree is a gift from a country where Catholics live. Other cities receive trees as gift as well; London puts up the Oslo tree on Trafalgar Square since 1947, and Hamburg puts up a tree gifted by one of Germany’s northern neighbors in front of its city hall.