Why Do We Put up Christmas Trees?

Focused girl in Santa hat hanging popcorn string decoration on Christmas tree
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Today, Christmas trees are treated as a secular element of the holiday, but they actually started with pagan ceremonies that were changed by Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.​

Because the evergreen flourishes all year round, it came to symbolize eternal life through Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. However, the custom of bringing tree branches indoors in the winter began with the ancient Romans, who decorated with greenery in the winter or put up laurel branches to honor the emperor.

The changeover came with Christian missionaries who were ministering to Germanic tribes about 700 A.D. Legend holds that Boniface, a Roman Catholic missionary, cut down a massive oak tree at Geismar in ancient Germany that had been dedicated to the Norse thunder god, Thor, then built a chapel out of the wood. Boniface supposedly pointed to an evergreen as an example of Christ's eternal life.

'Paradise Trees' Featured Fruit

In the Middle Ages, open-air plays about Bible stories were popular, and one celebrated the feast day of Adam and Eve, which took place on Christmas Eve. To advertise the play to illiterate townspeople, participants paraded through the village carrying a small tree, which symbolized the Garden of Eden. These trees eventually became "Paradise trees" in people's homes and were decorated with fruit and cookies.

By the 1500s, Christmas trees were common in Latvia and Strasbourg. Another legend credits German reformer Martin Luther with putting candles on an evergreen to imitate the stars shining at Christ's birth. Over the years, German glassmakers began producing ornaments, and families constructed homemade stars and hung sweets on their trees.

Not all clergy liked the idea. Some still associated it with pagan ceremonies and said it detracted from the true meaning of Christmas. Even so, churches began putting Christmas trees in their sanctuaries, accompanied by pyramids of wooden blocks with candles on them.

Christians Adopt Presents Too

Just as trees started with the ancient Romans, so did the exchanging of gifts. The practice was popular around the winter solstice. After Christianity was declared the Roman Empire's official religion by emperor Constantine I (272 - 337 A.D.), gift-giving took place around Epiphany and Christmas.

That tradition faded out, to be revived again to celebrate the feasts of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra (December 6), who gave gifts to poor children, and tenth-century Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia, who inspired the 1853 carol "Good King Wenceslas."

As Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and Scandinavia, the custom of giving Christmas gifts to family and friends went along with it. German immigrants to Canada and America brought their traditions of Christmas trees and gifts with them in the early 1800s.

The biggest boost to Christmas trees came from the immensely popular British Queen Victoria and her husband Albert of Saxony, a German prince. In 1841 they set up an elaborate Christmas tree for their children at Windsor Castle. A drawing of the event in the Illustrated London News circulated in the United States, where people enthusiastically imitated all things, Victorian.

Christmas Tree Lights and the Light of the World

The popularity of Christmas trees took another leap forward after U.S. President Grover Cleveland set up a wired Christmas tree in the White House in 1895. In 1903, the American Eveready Company produced the first screw-in Christmas tree lights that could run from a wall socket.

Fifteen-year-old Albert Sadacca convinced his parents to start manufacturing Christmas lights in 1918, using bulbs from their business, which sold lighted wicker bird cages with artificial birds in them. When Sadacca painted the bulbs red and green the next year, business really took off, leading to the founding of the multi-million dollar NOMA Electric Company.

With the introduction of plastic after World War II, artificial Christmas trees came into fashion, effectively replacing real trees. Although the trees are seen everywhere today, from stores to schools to government buildings, their religious significance has largely been lost.

Some Christians still firmly oppose the practice of putting up Christmas trees, basing their belief on Jeremiah 10:1-16 and Isaiah 44:14-17, which warn believers not to make idols out of wood and bow down to them. However, these passages are misapplied in this case. Evangelist and author John MacArthur set the record straight:

"There is no connection between the worship of idols and the use of Christmas trees. We should not be anxious about baseless arguments against Christmas decorations. Rather, we should be focused on the Christ of Christmas and giving all diligence to remembering the real reason for the season."

Christmas Tree Angels

There are a few different types of tree toppers, and in the modern era, some people may even have novelty or tongue-in-cheek toppers for their trees. The most traditional, though, are angels, which are traditionally placed atop the Christmas tree to symbolize the angels who announced Jesus's birth. Similarly, some people may choose to put a star at the top of their tree, to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem.

Reportedly, the popularity of the angel tree topper stems from the Christmas traditions of Queen Victoria in the 1800s. She and her husband Prince Albert brought the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle, and when word spread, households across English-speaking and English-influenced countries began imitating the practice, which the royal couple had brought from their German families. The royal family decorated their tree with many of the same types of ornaments we use today, including an angel tree topper, so fashionable families looking to imitate the royals did so as well, leading to the tradition we know.

(Sources: christianitytoday.com; whychristmas.com; newadvent.org; ideafinder.com.)

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Fairchild, Mary. "Why Do We Put up Christmas Trees?" Learn Religions, Sep. 4, 2021, learnreligions.com/significance-of-christmas-trees-4118107. Fairchild, Mary. (2021, September 4). Why Do We Put up Christmas Trees? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/significance-of-christmas-trees-4118107 Fairchild, Mary. "Why Do We Put up Christmas Trees?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/significance-of-christmas-trees-4118107 (accessed June 3, 2023).