What would Christmas be without a tree, with its lights and decorations shining through the winter darkness? But as we enjoy Christmas trees, whether in our own home or outdoors, the question remains: why should a tree have so much importance?
For centuries before the birth of Christ, trees were sacred to the pagan tribes of Europe. It was thought that they represented a connection between earth and heaven, because their branches thrust towards the sky from roots in the earth. Entire groves of trees could have a religious significance, and ash and oak were considered particularly holy.
During the winter solstice, the pagan festival held in Europe at the time when we now celebrate Christmas, branches of evergreen trees, such as the fir, were used to decorate houses and religious places. Evergreen plants, which do not die in winter, reminded people that spring would be coming.
The same custom of using evergreens for decoration, in houses and temples, was observed during the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, also held at this time of year. Jewish spiritual tradition held that trees were symbols of wisdom and life, and this symbolism also became important to the developing Christian faith.
For Christians, evergreen plants represented the everlasting life they hoped to reach with God. The story of Boniface, a seventh-century Christian saint, is often used to illustrate the way in which the fir tree became a Christian symbol. It is said that Boniface was an English missionary who came to teach pagan German tribes about Christianity. He is most associated with the area that now surrounds the town of Geismar, in the central area of modern Germany.
One day, it is said that Boniface found a group of people about to sacrifice a young boy at an oak tree sacred to the god Thor. He decided that the only way to save the boy's life was to attack Thor's tree - and, to the horror of the pagans, he cut down the sacred oak before their eyes. But as they watched, a small fir tree sprang up from the roots of the oak. Boniface told the pagans this was a sign that Christ should now be at the centre of their lives. It is said that the fir tree was decorated with candles, so that Boniface could teach people about Christianity by night, too.
There is a further legend that a German forester and his family took in a poor child who knocked on their door on a cold Christmas Eve. Next morning, they discovered that the child they had looked after was in fact the Baby Jesus. He gave them a branch of a fir tree as a gift of thanksgiving.
Christmas trees have been put up in Germany ever since. In the beginning they were more like the gift of the Baby Jesus in the legend: branches of fir, cherry or hawthorn, potted and brought indoors, where they would hopefully flower. Sometimes wooden trees were used, decorated as the plants would have been with candles, apples and coloured paper.
In medieval Germany real or wooden Christmas trees were sometimes carried from house to house, and used to advertise the mystery or miracle plays that would be performed on Christmas Eve in front of churches. In the early church calendar, 24 December was the feastday of Adam and Eve, so these plays would tell the story of their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Christmas tree symbolised the Paradise Tree from that garden.
Soon the custom of the Christmas tree began to spread beyond Germany. In 1441, 1442 and 1514, unmarried German merchants in what is now Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, put up a Christmas tree. At the end of Christmastide they took their tree to the town hall square of Tallinn and danced around it with single women. Then they set it on fire to represent the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. A similar ceremony happened in Riga, now the capital of Latvia, in 1510. These celebrations reflected the way the Yule Log was burned during the Norse winter festivals that have also become part of Christmas tradition.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Germany, nativity scenes and miracle plays became less important, because they were part of Catholicism. The Christmas tree now represented the Tree of Life, in the Garden of Eden, to individual households.
There is a story that the reformer Martin Luther was the first person to bring a whole Christmas tree into a house, when he decorated a small fir tree in his home with candles. He said that the light shining through the branches reminded him of Jesus coming to earth from heaven.
Decorations for Christmas trees became more and more important from the sixteenth century onwards. Apples, gingerbread, roses, sweets and coloured paper were used, and, in time, the first baubles - small glass ornaments. At first, the figure on top of the tree was the Baby Jesus; this changed to the figure of an angel, or a star, reminding people of the angel that told the shepherds about the birth of Jesus, or the Star of Bethlehem.
The phrase "Christmas tree" was first recorded in English in 1835, when Queen Charlotte, the German wife of the British king George III, introduced the tradition to England. But the person who succeeded in making Christmas trees popular in Britain was Prince Albert, also a German, and the husband of Queen Victoria. He had a Christmas tree put up for his young family for the first time in 1841.
A drawing of the royal family gathered round their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. It gave such an image of togetherness and happiness at a time when Christmas was increasingly viewed as a family holiday, that many British households began to see Christmas trees as an indispensable part of the season.
The publication of the same image in 1850, in the magazine Godey's Lady's Book, Philadelphia, attracted a lot of Americans to the idea of having a Christmas tree as well. But the first Germans to bring the tradition to America were probably settlers in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, while Charles Follen, the first Professor of German ever to be appointed at Harvard University, made a point of putting up a Christmas tree in his home in America from 1832. By the 1870s, putting up a tree had become a common part of celebrating Christmas in America. As the custom travelled there, so it arrived in other countries.
Today, Christmas trees remain a beautiful and vivid part of the celebrations of this season the world over. But, as history tells us, when we choose and decorate our trees, we are honouring a tradition older than Christmas itself.