There is considerable speculation … but precious little known fact … about the origin of the custom of placing an evergreen tree in, or near, one’s home in December.
One legend says that during the eighth century, St. Boniface … a British missionary monk … was touring Germany trying to win converts from the Druidic faith to Christianity. Outside the town of Geismar, Boniface was telling the story of the Nativity when he felled an oak tree to prove to his audience that this tree had no strange power to harm any Christian who harmed it. The large oak crushed all the smaller plants on which it fell, all except a little fir sapling which remained upright in the midst of the tumbled branches. The story goes on to relate how Boniface tried to turn this fir tree’s survival to his advantage by claiming that this was a miracle. “Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child,” he is supposed to have said, a remark that is said to have begun the Germanic custom of planting fir saplings at Christmas time.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.” That seems to me to be a more rational explanation of the origin of the custom: but another persuasive argument suggests that the Christmas tree is based on the so-called “tree of paradise”, a tree decorated with apples which featured in midwinter retellings of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The real apples were later replaced by artificial substitutes, the round, red balls becoming eventually the shiny decorations of contemporary Christmas trees.
During the fifteenth century, evergreen trees decorated with sweets were put up in guild halls in central Europe, with the sweets being given to children and young people on Christmas Day. And there is ample evidence that, in Germany at this time, flowers made from coloured paper, real apples and wafers were used as Christmas tree decorations. In the course of the next 200 years, the decorated Christmas tree became a common sight throughout Scandinavia as well as in Germany and the Baltic states; and candles and glittering decorations were added to the tree’s embellishments. The famous Christian reformer Martin Luther is credited with having been the first person to add candles to the tree. It is said that, while out walking one cold, clear, sixteenth century winter evening, Luther was so taken by the sight of the stars twinkling through the branches of fir trees that, on his return home, he sought to replicate the effect by wiring candles to the branches of his family Christmas tree. What is certain is that Christmas trees were more popular in Protestant houses than in the homes of Roman Catholics, who preferred cribs depicting the scene in the stable; and what is equally certain is that it was the German husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, who introduced the custom to England when he added lit candles to the Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. (Do not add live candles to your tree at home!)
As recently as the nineteenth century, Christmas trees were still associated with German culture; it wasn’t until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1870 that Christmas trees were seen in infirmaries, when the German army put them in military hospitals; and they weren’t seen in churches … despite the quaint mediaeval scenes depicted on Christmas cards … until about 100 years ago. Now, check the Christmas lights before you decorate the tree!
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society