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The Symbolism of Christmas Trees

Niina is a folklorist and a storyteller who loves to research and explore myths from all around the world.


Roots In Ancient Egypt

People in the northern hemisphere have long celebrated the Winter Solstice between December 21 and 22. To appease their gods, they used evergreen tree branches to decorate their dwellings, especially the doorways and windows. There was a widespread belief that the sun itself was a good who, during the long winter, fell ill and became weak before regaining strength each day and returning in the spring. The winter solstice was thought to mark the point at which the sun regained its strength. The presence of evergreen plants provided a reminder that the sun will soon rise again and all life would reemerge.

One of the first accounts of the winter solstice celebration came from ancient Egypt, when worshippers of the sun deity Ra, who wore a hawk and the sun as a crown, were practised. The ancient Egyptians decked their homes with palm rushes during the winter solstice when Ra would recover from his illness. For them, this represented life triumphing over death.


Heart of Winter

Around the winter solstice, it was customary in Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic societies to decorate homes with evergreen branches. The world tree was frequently represented by green branches. An early shamanic notion is the world tree. The world tree served as the pole that held the various layers of the world together. In the northern hemisphere, evergreen tree branches also represented the renewal of nature and everlasting life, giving people hope for the impending spring.

A conifer tree was the symbol of the Yule celebration. The Yule log was made from its trunk. Particularly revered woodland deities and spirits were associated with spruce trees. Homes were decorated with pine cones and twigs.
People in the Baltic Sea region frequently worshipped trees. During the winter solstice, it was customary in Finland for people to offer sacrifices under the spirit tree.


The Holiday of Saturnalia

One of the major holidays was Saturnalia, which was celebrated in ancient Rome from December 17 to December 25. The purpose of Saturnalia was to honour Saturn, the agricultural deity. They adorned dwellings with green branches to honour the god and the fact that farms and fields will soon be verdant and fruitful.

No one could be charged with breaching the law, killing, or harming another person during Saturnalia. The period of lawlessness was exploited by many, yet Saturnalia was also a time to remember others by sending them little presents.


Christianity Roots

According to Christian legend, an angel told the shepherds about the birth of Jesus when he appeared to them. For this reason, the top of the Christmas tree is decorated with an angel or a star in the Christian tradition. Christmas trees and balls are sometimes said to represent the tree of paradise and the forbidden fruit.

Christmas trees were increasingly popular in the 16th century. Legend has it that on his journey home to Wittenberg one winter night, German priest Martin Luther, who later became the founder of the Lutheran church, spotted a lovely spruce tree with a star shining brightly above it. He brought one of the trees into his house and attached candles to its branches since what he saw moved him so deeply.


A Brief History of Christmas Trees

Scandinavian nations adopted the Christmas tree custom in the 19th century. In Finland, a Christmas tree was first mentioned in 1829. Eight Christmas trees were purchased by a baron from Helsinki to decorate his residence. Clergymen and noblemen were the first to adopt the Christmas tree custom. The tradition of everyone having a Christmas tree did not become common in all Finnish homes until the 20th century.

Christmas tree ornamentation dates back to the Middle Ages. Scandinavian nations and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were the last nations in Europe to convert to Christianity. For the winter solstice celebration, people decorated tree branches. The handcrafter guilds decorated twigs with sweets and gave them as gifts to other guilds during the 16th century in Germany and Switzerland. All of the early Christmas tree decorations, including fruits, nuts, and sweets, could be eaten. Today, the majority of Christmas ornaments, are made of plastic and the themes range widely. The most popular ones include various Christmas balls, stars, angels, and elves.


Religious and Political Outlash

Some folks did not like Christmas trees. Christmas trees were outlawed by political and religious organizations who believed they were an effort to demoralize society. Trees weren't always regarded as secure. Some of the reasons, such as using actual candles to decorate trees and perhaps starting fires, were valid. In the 19th century, electric lighting in Christmas trees gained popularity. In New York in 1882, the first Christmas tree with electric lights was on exhibit.

Different countries use different ornaments for Christmas trees. Many English-speaking countries have a culture that enjoys colorful lights that flash rapidly. I try spend the entire Christmas season with my family in Finland. Since December and January are the darkest months of the year there, perhaps this helps to explain why people in Scandinavian countries favor bright lights over colored ones.

Social Class Transition

Christmas trees were a tradition reserved for the wealthiest families. Some folks may even own multiple trees. Having a Christmas Tree was something exotic. Sometimes people would even compete with their neighbours over who had the most attractive tree. Families with plenty of money may even have a tree in each room. The large tree was placed in the living room.

When the Middle Class adopted the custom, their trees were typically tiny and positioned in the centre of the table. The size of the Christmas trees increased along with the increase in demand.

© 2022 Niina Pekantytar