If you grew up with a family that celebrated Christmas each year, you know that as soon as the Christmas tree goes up, one of the best times of the year is only days or a couple weeks away. But when you stop and think about it, putting a tree up in your living room and decorating it with lights, ornaments, and even food is a bit of an unusual thing to do.
Why is it that we put trees in our homes for Christmas? Why do we decorate them? This is the origin story of the practice of erecting a Christmas tree during the holidays.
The Yule Tree
The tradition of having a Christmas tree during the holiday season is believed to have folkloric Pagan roots. Pagans are said to have decorated a Yule Tree, which typically was not cut down but left growing in nature, with decorations that symbolized the sun, moon and stars as they appeared in depictions of the Tree of Life.
Similarly, holiday gift-giving could have Pagan roots as well. People would hang what they believed to be sacred gifts on the Yule Tree to deities like Doinysus and Attis. This tradition could be the predecessor to modern holiday gift-giving.
In Poland, another Pagan custom called Podłaźniczka was celebrated during the holiday season. It involved the custom of hanging the branch of a fir tree from the ceiling of a home. Mistletoe was also sometimes hung during this time. The branches would be decorated similarly to a Christmas tree with straw and ribbons. This custom fell out of practice during the 1700s.
In Estonia, Latvia, and Germany, trees would be placed in guildhalls and decorated with sweets and other decorations that, on Christmas Day, the children of apprentices were invited to enjoy. This practice dates back to 1441. Modern Christmas tree traditions are believed to be rooted in Germanic traditions from this time.
The Protestant Reformation
The first ever recorded Christmas tree can be found on the keystone sculpture located in a private home in Alsace, France. This depiction dates back to 1576. Early Christmas trees are often associated to Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Luther is believed by some to be the first person to add candles to an evergreen tree.
Unlike today, where Christmas trees are nearly univeral in households that celebrate the holiday, these trees were usually found only in upper-class Protestant households. Over time, the practice of decorating a Christmas tree proliferated to the homes of middle and lower class families.
Introduction to North America
Prior to 1781, decorating Christmas trees was not a tradition in North America. During the winter of 1781, General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel, helpd a Christmas party for Hessian soldiers stationed in Quebec, Canada, that featured a decorated fir tree.
By the early 1800s, the tradition had caught on in the United States.
Christmas trees were fully banned in Russia following the October Revolution in 1935, but the tradition did not die. Instead, the Christmas tree was replaced with a secular “New Year tree” that was decorated with symbols of the Soviet Union, like bicycles, rockets, cosmonauts, airplanes, and Russian fairy tale characters. The secular practice of decorating a New Year tree in Russia persists to this day with more Russians celebrating with the secular tree as opposed to the Christmas tree.