It’s probably a pretty fair assumption that a good chunk of people who are reading this have seen a big fir tree sitting in someone’s home. Maybe it’s actually your home right now, and you’re getting really sick of all the little pine needles that are appearing everywhere. Both are safe bets, considering Americans get anywhere between 25-30 million live trees for Christmas every year. So you’re probably going to be leaving this tree up until the summer because you can’t be bothered to put it away. But why do people put Christmas trees in their homes?
Further Reading: 18 Trivia Facts About Your Christmas Tree
People Have Liked Trees for a Long Time
Tree worship is hardly a new phenomenon. They’ve been important symbols of fertility and death throughout the world, sometimes even immortality in the case of evergreen trees. But we’re here to talk about Christmas trees, which are commonly associated with Christian symbols. You might have guessed that Christmas trees didn’t start as an important piece of Christian iconography. If you did guess that, you’d be right.
It all comes back to the Winter Solstice, which people have figured out is the longest night (and shortest day) for a while now. Traditionally the Winter Solstice has been taken as a day where Sun deities regain their strength, after being weakened throughout the winter. In ancient Egypt, homes would be decorated with green palms following the Solstice to honor Ra, the Egyptian Sun and Creator God. Romans decorated their homes with evergreens during Saturnalia, a feast around the Winter Solstice dedicated to the harvest. In Northern Europe, evergreens were a symbol of life, and Vikings used evergreens like mistletoe as an offering to Baldur.
Further Reading: Why Do We Kiss Under the Mistletoe?
Let’s focus on Saturnalia, though. It was perhaps unique for many Roman celebrations, in that it was celebrated more universally throughout the Roman Empire. Many other celebrations were quite local, depending on which gods of the pantheon denizens worshipped the most. Saturnalia ran from the 17th to the 25th of December, and if you remember some Christian history, you remember that Christianity was officially recognized within the Roman Empire around 313 AD. Now remember that part about December 25th, which the first Roman Christians asserted was the birth of Jesus. This served as an effective political pivot, turning Saturnalia into a celebration of Jesus (even if scholars assert Jesus probably wasn’t born on the 25th).
Germany and also the Victorians
The modern Christmas tree tradition is largely credited to 16th century Germany. They were already putting fir trees inside their homes anyway. When Christian cults made their way around, Adam and Eve started being celebrated as saints around Christmas Eve. Some of these celebrations included Paradise Plays, where performances dedicated to the Garden of Eden’s story would hang fruits on trees. These plays are also sometimes credited as the origin for red and green being Christmas’ patron colors. Because these trees were needed in the wintertime, paradise trees were commonly evergreens, and people would often bring little pieces of evergreens home.
Eventually the putting-trees-in-your-home custom expanded in Europe, largely thanks to Queen Victoria in the late 1840s. Her spouse (and also first cousin) Prince Albert was German–and many Germans coming to Britain through the 1800s brought the tradition of bringing evergreens home during Christmas time with them. Once Queen Victoria also embraced the tradition, it caught on with basically everyone else (Queen Victoria was broadly considered a popular monarch).
See if you know who harvests the most Christmas trees here.