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The First Christmas Trees

Many holiday traditions that are not explicitly religious often wind up attributed to pagans.  Easter eggs, Easter rabbits, mistletoe, jack o’lanterns… all these modern symbols of religious holidays that have pagan roots.  The Christmas tree also gets this association, but that isn’t entirely true.

There are pagan forerunners to the Christmas tree.  A pagan tradition from pre-Christian Poland involved suspending evergreen branches from a house’s ceiling and decorating them with fruit, nuts, wafers, cookies, and other decorations.  This was thought to suggest and inspire good luck and prosperity. While this does sound a bit like our modern concept of the Christmas tree, this tradition is not thought to be the inspiration of the iconic holiday decoration that we think of today.  Evergreen has long figured into the season, though. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia (a festival that occurred during modern Christmastime) with wreaths of evergreen branches, which is a common Christmas decorations throughout Europe and America today.

The traditional Polish podłaźniczka, a pagan tradition that remains part of Polish Christmas decorations today.

What brought trees in from out of the cold was theater.  Specifically it was the traditional medieval mystery play performed every year in much of the Christian world on December 24.  This play told the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of Paradise. This popular decoration was a prop for the play, and over time it became popular to have a Tree of Paradise of your own inside your house.  The Tree of Paradise is said in the Bible to have borne some kind of fruit. On these small, decorative trees, round objects were popular substitutions (since real fruit was for eating), and shiny, red objects were preferred.

Stage design for a modern production of the medieval Adam and Eve mystery play at The Cloisters in New York City.  These performances were held inside the church. Not all productions were this big.

In the mid-15th century, an association of unmarried merchants in the Baltic countries called the Brotherhood of the Blackheads started a tradition of decorating a tree with fruit, candy, and baked goods, and delivering it to town squares for their apprentices and the local children to enjoy.  Latvians are keen to call this the first Christmas tree, but not everyone agrees with this. Residents of Turckheim, Alsace, claim that the first Christmas tree was erected there, since a private home in Turckheim features the earliest known design of a Christmas tree, appearing on a keystone, dating from 1576.

Christmas 2018, Turckheim, Alsace, France.  Christmas trees are still a big deal in this town where the locals will tell you they were invented!

Today Alsace is in France, but when the Turckheim tree was created, Alsace was still part of the Holy Roman Empire, a mostly German-speaking country.  The Christmas tree grew in popularity there, and the concept was exported throughout Europe and around the world. In fact, the Christmas tree was first introduced to North America by Hessian soldiers stationed in Quebec in 1781, while the Christmas tree was first introduced to Great Britain by Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz in 1800.  The tree became a tradition among the British royal family, who were of German stock, but never really caught on with the people until Queen Victoria had one at her wedding to Prince Albert (also German) in 1841. Enthusiasm for the new queen no doubt fueled the appeal of the Christmas tree, which is a staple of British Christmas decorations today.

While the Christmas tree is directly descended from the medieval Adam and Eve mystery plays, it also merges the pagan tradition of the evergreen tree.  As holiday symbols go, the Christmas tree is probably more Judeo-Christian in origin than most, but it definitely has a pagan tinge to it. Like a lot of traditions, you can’t really assign them to one particular background.  If you dig deep enough, you seldom discover “pure” roots for anything!

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