Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.
Pagan Christmas Celebration
The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolised for them the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.
The Roman Celebration Saturnalia
The first document use of a tree at Christmas and new year celebrations is argued between the cities of Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia. Both claim that they had the first trees; Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510. Both trees were put up by the “Brotherhood of Blackheads” which was an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners and foreigners in Livonia (what is now Estonia and Latvia).
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Martin Luther and his Family with their Christmas Tree 1536 – From Sartain’s Magazine
The first Christmas trees are believed to have come to Britain in 1800. It is thought that Queen Charlotte brought the tradition with her when she moved from Mecklenburg-Strelitz. In 1800 she planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor. And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that instead of the customary yew bough, she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen’s Lodge. Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon.
The trees became popular with the masses in 1841, when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle. In 1848, a drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the Illustrated London News. The drawing was republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia in December 1850. The publication of the drawing helped Christmas Trees become popular in Britain and the United States.
The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle – 1848