a candid history of the Christmas tree

a candid history of the Christmas tree

  23 Dec 2023

The Christmas tree is a modern invention.

It is a largely secular symbol, having no basis in the Bible.

There are many trees in the Bible, from the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life in Genesis to the reference to Christ’s cross as a “tree” in Acts.

But there is no Christmas tree.

The same is true of ancient, pagan sources.

While it might be tempting to draw connections between the Christmas tree and pagan gods and festivals, such as the Egyptian god Ra and the Roman festival Saturnalia, the Christmas tree as we know it is completely unrelated.

The same goes for the legend of Saint Boniface and the Germans, which is just that: a legend.

Almost all religions, ancient and modern, have used trees in their rituals, but not Christmas trees.

Even when we get to the 16th century, the Christmas tree we are familiar with is still 350 years in the future.

The story of Martin Luther, to whom the origins of the tree have been popularly attributed, is not supported by scholarship.

As wholesome as it sounds, Luther was not overwhelmed by the beauty of a snow-covered tree while contemplating the infant Christ.

The truth is the Christmas tree is a relatively new tradition.

It originated as a minor, localised tradition in the 17th century in a single place: the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg.

A German tradition

German citizens of Strasbourg included a tree as part of a judgement tradition on Christmas day.

Children would be judged by their parents.

If good, bonbons would be left under a tree.

If bad, there would be no bonbons – a hint of what was to come on Judgement Day.

The ritual spread to other parts of Germany in the 1770s.

The German romantic novelist Goethe offered the first account of the Christmas tree to reach a wide audience in Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).

Pexels Karolina Grabowska 6032701

But it wasn’t widely adopted in Germany until the 1830s after the Christmas tree began to gain popularity in America.

The tradition came to Britain in the 1830s, introduced by German merchants in Manchester around the same time the courts of George III and William IV, themselves of German descent, introduced it to British aristocracy.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularised the tradition in Britain when Albert set up a Christmas tree at Windsor in 1840.

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