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“Nothing ever seems too bad, too hard or too sad when you’ve got a Christmas tree in the living room. All those presents under it, all that anticipation. Just a way of saying there’s always light and hope in the world” — Nora Roberts

he Christmas tree is one of the most popular Christmas-related traditions in the world. It is usually an evergreen conifer — such as a spruce, a pine, or a fir — or an artificial tree of similar appearance decorated with colorful objects and lights. Christmas trees are made a few weeks before Christmas and, traditionally, people place presents at their feet. But where does this custom come from?

The Pagan Origins of the Christmas Tree

If we want to find out the origins of the Christmas tree we have to go back to paganism. In particular, the Celtic druids — who were members of the high-ranking religious class in ancient Celtic cultures — considered fir trees a symbol of immortality as they remained green even during the winter. They began to honor them on the winter solstice feast. In the far north of Europe, the Vikings believed that the spruce had some magical powers since it did not lose its leaves, even during their freezing winters. Trees were cut down, brought home, and decorated with fruits. Likewise, the Romans used to decorate their homes with pine branches during the Kalends of January.

Decorating the Christmas Tree — Marcel Rieder — 1898 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Christianity and the Christmas Tree

Obviously, those cults had nothing to do with Christianity. However, when Christianity spread all over the Roman Empire, the tree became part of the Christian tradition. The biblical scene of Eden gives the Christmas tree its Christian meaning. The night people celebrate the birth of the One who brought new life to humanity, according to the Christian faith, the tree placed at the center of the Garden of Eden — symbol of the fall of humanity — also becomes the tree around which humanity can find forgiveness.

The Modern-Day Christmas Tree

The modern-day kind of Christmas tree was put up for the first time in Reval — now Tallinn — in 1441 by the Brotherhood of Blackheads. The brotherhood was an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners. A large fir tree was placed in the Town Hall Square and the brotherhood’s members danced around it in search of their twin souls.

The custom of decorating the tree, instead, actually comes from Germany. The legend holds that a man, on a Christmas Eve in the sixteenth century, was enchanted by the stars shining through the branches of a fir. Therefore, he cut it down, took it home, and decorated it with red candles.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children around a Christmas tree — Illustrated London News — 1848

The custom became popular when Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were depicted with their children around a Christmas tree by the Illustrated London News in 1848. Since then, the tradition of decorating a tree was embraced by thousands of people.

Conclusion

Nowadays, millions of people from different faiths and cultures worldwide put up their Christmas trees each year. To some, it is a symbol of Christmas, whereas to others it is just a part of December festivities. Perhaps, it is the only custom that unites most of the world’s population. Celebrations and cults change as years goes by, but the Christmas tree is likely to stay.

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