Where did the tradition of a Christmas tree come from?

Sean Brady, horticulturalist at Blarney Castle Gardens looks at where different Christmas customs came from
Where did the tradition of a Christmas tree come from?

Like most festive traditions, the origin of the Christmas tree can be traced to pagan traditions. Picture: Stock

THIS is the time of year that most people in the Northern Hemisphere adorn their homes with numerous objects to symbolise the arrival of Christmas — but have you ever wondered where this custom originated?

The precise origin of assigning December 25 as the birth date of Jesus is unclear. One explanation is that December 25 was the Christianizing of the dies solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”), a popular holiday in the Roman Empire that celebrated the winter solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter, and the heralding of the rebirth of spring and summer.

Indeed, after December 25 had become widely accepted as the date of Jesus’ birth, Christian writers frequently made the connection between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son.

The English term Christmas (“mass on Christ’s day”) is of fairly recent origin. The earlier term Yule may have derived from the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon word which referred to the feast of the winter solstice. Corresponding terms in other languages — Navidad in Spanish, Natale in Italian, and Noël in French — all probably denote nativity. The German word Weihnachten denotes “hallowed night.”

CLOSE TO NATURE AT CHRISTMAS: Kissing under the mistletoe.
CLOSE TO NATURE AT CHRISTMAS: Kissing under the mistletoe.

MISTLETOE

There are hundreds of species of mistletoe, a parasitic green plant that grows on trees and shrubs and is found around the world, and as such, many cultures have worked the plant into their customs and mythology. 

Many ancient groups associated mistletoe with fertility and vivacity, and some considered it an aphrodisiac.

The Celtic Druids are among the first people known to ascribe a tradition to mistletoe, using it in ceremonies at least a few thousand years ago, but they didn’t kiss under it. They believed mistletoe, especially a rare species that grew on oak trees, to have sacred powers including the ability to heal illnesses, protect against nightmares, and even predict the future. As such, the Druids would collect it at the summer and winter solstices, hence, they were most likely the first to use mistletoe to decorate houses around Christmas, although their tradition had nothing to do with the Christian holiday.

@The truth is, were it not for Queen Victoria, the most powerful monarch of her time, decorated fir trees might have remained an obscure custom that only a few Germanic and Slavic countries practiced." says Sean Brady. Picture: stock
@The truth is, were it not for Queen Victoria, the most powerful monarch of her time, decorated fir trees might have remained an obscure custom that only a few Germanic and Slavic countries practiced." says Sean Brady. Picture: stock

CHRISTMAS TREE

For many, it’s unthinkable to celebrate Christmas without a beautiful evergreen fir in the living room decorated with sparkling ornaments and wrapped presents. Like most festive traditions, its origin can be traced to pagan traditions. Long before Christianity, people in the Northern Hemisphere used evergreen plants to decorate their homes, particularly the doors, to celebrate the Winter Solstice.

On December 21 or December 22, the day is the shortest and the night the longest. Traditionally, this time of the year is seen as the return in strength of the sun god who had been weakened during winter and evergreen plants served as a reminder the god would glow again, and summer was to be expected.

The truth is, were it not for Queen Victoria, the most powerful monarch of her time, decorated fir trees might have remained an obscure custom that only a few Germanic and Slavic countries practiced. 

When Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, it became a tradition throughout England, the United States, and Canada.

A beautiful wreath from The Flowersmiths studio based in Cloghroe.
A beautiful wreath from The Flowersmiths studio based in Cloghroe.

CHRISTMAS WREATH

Wreaths are more than just decorations. Most people don’t think of the rich history attached to these beautiful Christmas decorations.

The word wreath comes from the word ‘writhen’, an old English word meaning ‘to writhe’ or ‘to twist’. The art of hanging Christmas wreaths originated from the Romans, who hung them on their doors as a sign of victory and of their status in society.

Women usually wore them as headdresses as a symbol of pride, and also donned them during special occasions such as weddings. 

Additionally, the victors of sporting events in ancient Greece were given laurel wreaths; this tradition is still used to this day during the Olympic Games, in which the medals are engraved with sprigs of laurel.

Christmas wreaths are made by twisting or bending branches into a large circle, which is then decorated. The circle shape is made to represent Christ’s eternal love, his strength, and the creation of new life.

Evergreens are commonly used in the construction of the wreath due to their heartiness throughout harsh winters and they denote strength as well as immortality.

Christmas wreaths in the Catholic tradition had four candles — three purple, symbolizing penance, and expectation, and one pink to represent the coming joy. The four Sundays preceding Christmas Day are embodied by the four candles lit each Friday of Advent at dinner along with a prayer.

Similarly to Catholic customs, traditional Pagan wreaths were also evergreen circles consisting of four candles. These represented the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water. 

Their wreaths were typically used in rituals that would ensure the continuance of the circle of life.

A selection of different advent calendars. The calendars can be traced back to the 19th century. 
A selection of different advent calendars. The calendars can be traced back to the 19th century. 

Advent calendar

The origin of the Advent calendar can be traced back to the 19th century. The first styles came from the Protestant area. So religious families made a chalk line for every day in December till Christmas Eve. 

The first known calendar which was made by handwork is from 1851. 

Other early styles were the Advent clock or the Advent candle — a candle for each of the 24 days until Christmas, like today’s Advent wreath. In religious families, little pictures were hung up on the wall — one for each day in December. Another tradition was to paint chalk strokes on the door, one per day till Christmas Eve.

It is interesting to see the traditions that have stood the test of time and continue today as popular and symbolic as ever. Happy Christmas!

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