Perhaps you remember hearing or singing this song, originally written in German as O Tannenbaum and later translated into English?
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How steadfast are your branches! Your boughs are green in summer’s clime And through the snows of wintertime. O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How steadfast are your branches!
Or perhaps you’re more familiar with this version?
O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Thy leaves are so unchanging; O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Thy leaves are so unchanging; Not only green when summer's here, But also when 'tis cold and drear. O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Thy leaves are so unchanging!
From a cursory glance at the internet, you can find that there are close to a hundred different English versions of this three or four verse song, many with minor variations of the two (first verse) versions above and several others with different second third and even fourth verses. However, many younger people may not have heard the song or may have only heard it as a commercial jingle, as it is no longer as popular as it once was. While decorating Christmas trees is still very popular in many countries, singing about them seems to have fallen out of fashion.
But how did the Christmas tree become so popular in many homes around the world? How did the customs of decorating it and putting presents under it originate? Why an evergreen tree? Was it simply a pagan practice associated with pagan holidays adopted into Christianity or was it a custom rooted into daily life during winter in Northern Europe that was added to Christian festivals? Is the concept of the Christmas tree something spoken about or forbidden in Scripture? We’ll attempt to tackle these questions directly.
When reading most historical sources on the origin of the Christmas tree, it is almost universally and offhandedly mentioned that it was borrowed from pagan religious festivals and adapted into Christianity. But when one closely examines these claims, they seem to have little basis in fact. Most of the traditions associated with pagan festivals are only remotely similar to Christmas celebrations. But even a cursory glance at Scripture shows that evergreens were mentioned prominently in Scripture and were associated with God’s favor towards his people (Numbers 24:6, Psalms 104:16, Isaiah 41:19) or were mentioned in connection with testifying to the goodness of God (Psalms 148:9, Isaiah 55:13). Solomon loved cedars and (c. 1000 BC), he imported them into Jerusalem and made them commonplace within the city (2 Chronicles 9:27). In Isaiah 60:13 (c. 700 BC) we read that the Lord promised that fragrant evergreen trees such as the cedar, cypress, and pine would be brought from Lebanon and be planted around the Temple to beautify it. Indeed, the first Temple, built by Solomon was constructed of cedar and cypress wood (1 Kings 6:15), and when God spoke of revitalizing Israel, he specifically mentioned planting cedar, cypress, and pine trees (and others) in the wilderness (Isaiah 41:19). We can glean from Scripture then that evergreen trees were used for decorating and building and were well-loved trees.
Christmas Rings of Saturnalia?
Comparing this with pagan festivals, like the weeklong (December 17–23) festival of Saturnalia (argued to have been celebrated as early as 672 BC or as late as 497 BC)1, the Romans would hang evergreen boughs on their houses and give gifts of holly to one another.3 Other customs during Saturnalia included the giving and lighting of candles,4 and the gift on the last day of the festival (December 23rd) was a wax or clay figurine called a sigillaria.5 It is often stated that these Roman customs were directly incorporated in the Christian celebrations at Christmas, but the ancient Roman customs were much darker, meant to serve as replacements for human sacrifice. It is also worth noting that the Roman Saturn was equivalent to the Greek Cronos, who was most likely a deified great-grandson of Noah.6 Interestingly the author Orsolya Tóth makes note of this, recording ancient historians who viewed Saturn as a deified mortal man.7
It is apparent from later historical records that Northern Europeans, especially those in Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain and Ireland had customs where they brought live evergreen trees into their homes during winter, often but not always, associated with the winter solstice.8 The reasons appear to be varied, and the modern consensus is that these were pagan religious rites or superstitious practices.
A common reason given by those wishing to force a tie-in between pagan superstitions and Christmas is that evergreen plants warded off sickness, evil spirits and witches, or that the sun god became weakest near the winter solstice and evergreen trees showed that he would soon be returning to strength and vigor.9 Other cultures associated evergreen boughs with certain gods (for the Norse it was Balder) or as symbols of everlasting life.10 But the association of a tree with prosperity and long life for those who loved the Lord was mentioned several times in Scripture (Psalm 1:3, 52:8, 92:12, Proverbs 11:30, Jeremiah 17:7-8, Hoshea 14:6-8), long before Norse mythology sprang up.
Pagan Customs or Herbal Remedies?
It is commonly thought that as Christianity spread over Northern Europe, those who converted to Christianity continued the same practices and folded them into their newfound faith, but it is more likely that they gained new respect for these same evergreen trees as showing an insight into the Christian faith. For example, evergreens didn’t drop all of their leaves, they continued to grow, they were perseverant in the face of cold, resistant to pests, and were sweet smelling. This symbolized Christian virtues like perseverance (2 Timothy 3:10), steadfastness (Colossians 2:5), faithfulness (Galatians 5:22), temperance/self-control (2 Peter 1:6), and the sweet-smelling aroma of sacrificial love (Ephesians 5:2, Philippians 4:18).
For example, the use of evergreens in many herbal teas is still popular today and can be traced back hundreds or even thousands of years.11 There have been documented cases of pine needle tea to cure scurvy in soldiers.12 Pine Needle tea is a natural decongestant, contains up to 3.5 times the Vitamin C of an orange,13 and is high in Vitamin A14 and anti-oxidants.15 Spruce tea and Balsam Fir tea are also both high in Vitamin C and contain B vitamins, folic acid, and several electrolytes.16 Balsam Fir is also used to make a paste to reduce the severity of toothaches, and is still used as a sealer after root canals to minimize pain.17 Both pine and spruce trees also contain large amounts of shikimic acid, the compound used in Tamiflu (an anti-flu drug).18
It’s likely that the Northern Europeans of a thousand to two thousand years ago didn’t know how these evergreen teas prevented scurvy, helped with curing colds and flus, and eased congestion and coughs, but they knew that they worked, and that having a ready supply at hand was a smart practice.
In addition to the above medical benefits, pine resin is great for sealing leather and wood from the elements, is a fantastic fire-starter aid, works well as a glue, can help seal and prevent infection to skin cuts and wounds, and can even help with stomach ailments when chewed.19 Spruce resin has similar medicinal and practical properties.20
Not a bad thing to have in Medieval Northern Europe when there are no matches, pharmacies, or hardware stores around. While the evidence for evergreens being present in pagan solstice celebrations is documented history, and often touted as the sole precursor to the Christmas Tree, it seems that practical usage and herbal remedies are frequently downplayed and may be equally significant to their presence in Medieval European homes.
We’ve answered questions before about the supposed connection between Christmas and the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus and how these “pagan connections” are forced and historically inaccurate. We’ve also addressed the oft-cited claim of Jeremiah 10:1–5 forbidding the practice of putting up a Christmas Tree, when in fact that passage is specifically addressing idolatry (from cutting down a tree through the workmanship to make it into an painted idol in your house). Scripture does mention holidays (and whether or not we choose to celebrate them) as aspects of Christian liberty (Romans 14:5–13, Colossians 2:16–17), as long as we do them unto the Lord. Even Jesus was at the temple during the Feast of Dedication, which was an extrabiblical celebration.
The Modern Practice of Decorated Christmas Trees
As far as the modern practice of cutting evergreen trees, bringing them into the home and decorating them for Christmas,21 that can (arguably) be traced back to Germany in the 16th Century (although Estonia22 and Latvia23 claim that they were the first country to decorate a Christmas tree). There is even an unsubstantiated tradition that Martin Luther while walking in the forest, saw moonlight (or starlight) coming through the tree branches and was dazzled by the beauty of the scene. Luther went out and cut down a fir tree and brought it into his house. He then decorated it with candles to simulate the moonlight effect for his family.24 Whether that particular legend is true or not, there can be no doubt that Luther furthered the popularization of Christmas celebrations in Germany,25 including writing his first Christmas Carol in 1524 (later turned into a cantata by J.S. Bach ).26
The decoration of Christmas trees in areas outside of continental Europe can be traced to Queen Victoria and her husband Albert’s Christmas tree, which was decorated, adorned with presents, and documented in 1846 by the Illustrated London News.27 After seeing this sketch (and probably witnessed by a few nobles) word spread of the Royal family’s tree and soon many in England were putting decorated trees into their homes.
Queen Victoria’s popularity in English-speaking countries soon led to many other countries adopting the Christmas tree custom. In America, President Benjamin Harrison (1889–93) was the first president to have a Christmas tree in the White House in 1889, and this greatly increased its popularity in the United States.28
Decorations for the Christmas tree have greatly changed over the years, from nuts, berries, fruits, candles, and gingerbread, to the now more-popular tinsel, electric lights, and non-edible ornaments. But in each of these, traditional focus has been on how these decorations were regarded as symbols of Christianity.
Since Christmas is celebrated in many countries, local traditions varied and still do. In a pre-industrial agrarian culture, the nuts, berries, and fruits were reminders of the providential gifts of God in the harvest (Psalm 136:25). The candles for either the Christmas tree or the Advent wreath represented Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12), or the stars that he created (Genesis 1:16).29,30
The Gingerbread men represented either God’s creation of mankind (Genesis 1:27) or Jesus as the bread of life (John 6:35), with the sweetness of the cookie representing the sweetness of redemption.31 Modern decorations such as electric lights carry over the same symbolism as the candles, while ornaments, being traditionally spherical represented God who has no beginning or end.32
Most are aware that stars or angels placed at the top of the tree represent the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2) or the angel who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-12).33 And the presents under the tree represent the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the wise men gave to Jesus (Matthew 2:11).34
The Substance Casting the Shadow
But all of these things are merely symbolic and are meant to point people to Jesus Christ and his birth, which we honor at this time of year. And even as we celebrate the Incarnation, we are reminded that Jesus came to earth, took on flesh and came with a specific purpose—not to do his own will, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). Whether we choose to celebrate Christmas or not is, as we have mentioned, a matter of Christian liberty.
But all Christians are commanded to remember Christ and his sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection (1 Corinthians 11:24–26) and to confess Christ’s incarnation (1 John 4:2), because Jesus needed to become a man in order to provide salvation to mankind and to defeat death for us (1 Corinthians 15:21–26, Hebrews 2:9, 2:14-15).
During this Christmas season, whether you have a Christmas tree in your home or not, reflect upon Calvary’s tree (Acts 13:29), where Jesus willingly went to bear our sins so that we might live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). And if you are not a Christian, please consider that the presents under the Christmas tree are not only to remind us of the gifts the wise men gave but, even more so, to remind everyone that the free gift of salvation is available to all, so that whoever believes in Christ Jesus should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).