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The Christmas Tree: Legends, Traditions, History

by Lino Lozza

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    Many legends and old traditions concerning the Christmas tree date back to very ancient times, but historical documentation of its origins as the tree we know and decorate today only appeared in recent centuries.
  • Larger Work:
    L'Osservatore Romano
  • Pages: 10
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, January 5, 2005

Many legends and old traditions concerning the Christmas tree date back to very ancient times, but historical documentation of its origins as the tree we know and decorate today only appeared in recent centuries.

There is no doubt, however, that legends and traditions show the convergence of many customs, some born outside the Christian culture and others strictly Christian. We will consider here some of the most important ones that were forerunners of the Christmas tree.

Since very ancient times even primitive people would take evergreen plants and flowers into their huts, seeing in them a magical or religious significance. The Greeks and Romans decorated their dwellings with ivy. The Celts and Scandinavians preferred mistletoe, but many other evergreen plants such as holly, butcher's broom, laurel and branches of pine or fir were considered to have magical or medicinal powers that would ward off illness. This belief was found especially among the inhabitants of the northern regions with cold climates and long, dark winters; it was almost as if these plants revived thoughts of the coming spring while everything around them lay dormant. Naturally enough, temples were built to the "goddess Flora".

St Boniface, eighth-century Bishop

An interesting tradition, part history, part legend and very popular in Germany, claims that the Christmas tree dates back to the eighth century. This legend is based on a historical figure, St Boniface, and even a historical event, the destruction of Odin's oak. St Boniface (675-754) was the English Bishop Winfrid who went to Germany in the eighth century, to Hesse to be precise, to preach the Christian faith as a missionary from the Church of Rome. After a period of apparently successful Gospel preaching, Boniface went to Rome to confer with Pope Gregory II (715-731). After a long absence, he returned to Geismar, Germany, for Christmas 723, and felt personally offended on discovering that the Germans had reverted to their former idolatry of pagan divinities and were preparing to celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under Odin's sacred oak tree. Fired by holy anger, as was Moses by the golden calf, Bishop Boniface took up an axe and dared to cut down the oak. This courageous, historically documented act meant the triumph of Christianity in Germany over the pagan divinities.

All this is historically documented. The rest belongs to the legend which tells how, at the first blow of the axe, a strong gust of wind instantly brought down 1he tree. The astounded Germans fearfully recognized the hand of God in this event and humbly asked Boniface how they should celebrate Christmas. The Bishop, the legend continues, pointed to a small fir tree that had miraculously remained upright and intact beside the debris and broken branches of the fallen oak. Boniface was familiar with the popular custom of taking an evergreen plant into the house in winter and asked everyone to take home a fir tree. This tree signifies peace, and as an evergreen it also symbolizes immortality; with its top pointing upwards, it additionally indicates heaven, the dwelling place of God.

Another legend is constituted by a famous hawthorn called the "Holy Thorn" that was found at Glastonbury Abbey in England and flowers at Christmas time. It was venerated as a "sacred relic" because a legend claims that it derived from a sprig that came from Jesus' crown of thorns.

The legendary hawthorn survived for many centuries a was honored as a sacred relic. This flowering bush made a contribution of its own to the idea of a tree associated with the Christmas feast day.

The choice of the date

The real date of Jesus' birth, from the historical viewpoint, lies concealed beneath a veil of uncertainty as regards Roman history, the imperial census of that time and research in the subsequent centuries. The scholar Abbot Giuseppe Ricciotti, author of the voluminous Vita di Gesù Cristo (cf. Vatican Polyglot Press, 1940), after careful research on the events of the time concludes: "We know neither the day nor the year of Jesus' birth with absolute certainty" (p. 182).

The date of 25 December, as is well known, was chosen by the Church of Rome in the fourth century. This date in pagan Rome was dedicated to the Sun god, because it is from this day that the days begin gradually to grow longer until summer.

This feast was also lively and joyful because it was combined with the Saturnalia (17-24 December) and the calends of January (1 January) that ushered in the new year. Although Christianity had already been affirmed in Rome by an Edict of Constantine, the myth of Mithras who venerated the Sun god was still widespread, especially among soldiers. The abovementioned festivities, centered on 25 December, were deeply rooted in popular tradition. This gave the Church of Rome the idea of impressing a Christian religious significance on the day by replacing the Sun god with the true Son of Justice, Jesus Christ, choosing it as the day on which to celebrate his birth. St John the Evangelist presents Jesus as "the true light that enlightens every man... the light [that] shines in the darkness" (cf. Jn 1:14).

Hence, the Church of Rome established 25 December as the day of the Nativity of Jesus. Today, only a few Eastern Orthodox Churches hold that 6 January should be celebrated as the date of Jesus' birth, but throughout the world the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is celebrated on 25 December.

Medieval religious plays

The most important clue to the origin of the Christmas tree as we know it comes from the mystery and miracle plays, and in particular from the Tree of Good and Evil in the earthly Paradise.

These plays were first performed in the late Middle Ages and their purpose was to teach religion. It should be remembered that people in general were illiterate. To spread and to keep the faith alive, to make known the Sacred Scriptures, preaching was essential.

It was thought that acting out Bible and Gospel episodes for the humbler classes would facilitate this task. As a rule, these religious plays were enacted for the celebration of an episode or of the saint whom they featured, and they became popular throughout Europe. A famous play was the performance put on for holy Christmas, celebrated on 25 December.

On Christmas Eve, 24 December, Adam and Eve would be commemorated with the highly popular episode of the Tree of the earthly Paradise; they would tower on the stage together with the devil, disguised as a serpent, Eve picking an apple and Adam eating it. Original sin, expiated by Jesus born on the 25th, was symbolized on the night of 24 December. The tree ought to have been an apple tree, but since an apple tree would have been inappropriate in winter, a fir tree was set on the stage and some apples put on its branches or, to symbolize the future coming of Redemption, wafers prepared with crushed biscuits in special moulds that were symbols of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus, as well as sweets and gifts for children.

Even when the religious tableaux were abandoned, the Tree of Paradise continued to be associated with Christmas in many people's minds.

Between history and literature

According to Prof. Fabio Fabiani, a learned scholar as well as an excellent doctor, in his little book La storia dell'albero di Natale (The Story of the Christmas Tree), "it was only after the 18th century that the Christmas tree was featured in literature". These are his most significant citations: "The first important author to mention the Christmas tree was Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) in his famous Die Leiden des jungen Werther, published in 1774. Towards the end of his novel, his heroine, Lotte, is wrapping presents for the little ones on 20 December. It is the Sunday before Christmas and Werther, who pays her a visit, speaks '...of the happy time when the unexpected opening of a door, revealing the tree decorated all over with candles, sweetmeats and apples, can still enfold a person in joyful ecstasy'". Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) also speaks in his works of a Christmas tree.

There is no doubt that in this period fir trees decorated with lights must have been widely used throughout Germany, or at least in the big cities, and in 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the great English poet who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, having spent Christmas in Germany, described in a letter to a friend in England the enchanting beauty of many candlelit trees that he had seen in houses. In 1848, Fedor Dostoyevsky published in the September issue of Otécestvennye Zapiski his tale "The Christmas Tree". In 1850, Charles Dickens wrote in a magazine of the marvels of the "pretty German toy", brilliantly illuminated by myriads of tiny candles.

To the works of these famous writers, Prof. Fabiani also adds The Grandmother by Bozena Nemcova, published in Paris in 1855, in which the Christmas tree in Czechoslovakia is mentioned, as well as Hans Christian Andersen's The Fir Tree and The Little Match Girl.

The birth of the Christmas tree

The most widespread opinion among scholars is that the Christmas tree as we know it today, decorated and lit with lights, derived from the tree in the earthly Paradise. As its birth place, the left bank of the Rhine is indicated, and especially Alsace. One of the earliest testimonies of this are the registers of the town of Schlettstadt (1521), in which special protection was prescribed for forests on the days prior to Christmas; forest rangers were responsible for punishing anyone who cut down a tree to decorate his house.

Another document informs us that in Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, fir trees were sold in the market, to be taken home and decorated.

From Alsace, the tradition of the Christmas tree spread across Germany and the whole of Europe, and soon even arrived in North America.

Italy was one of the last countries to accept the Christmas tree, partly because of a rather widespread rumor that the use of Christmas trees was a Protestant practice and should thus be replaced by the crib. However, in Catholic Austria this rumours— declared to be unfounded even by the well-known Protestant theologian, Oscar Cullmann, one of his writings on the Christmas tree — was not accepted, since Trent and the Venetian regions were influenced by Austrian customs as well as the availability of fir trees.

The tree in St Peter's Square

Pope Paul VI, of venerable memory, began the tradition of setting up o massive Christmas tree beside the grand crib in St Peter's Square, a gift each year from a different nation.

Referring to St Boniface's words, we can conclude that the great tree lit by numerous tiny lights can symbolize many Christian values.

In the days of yore, the primitive people used the wood of fir trees to build their huts in which they lived peacefully. Today the Christmas tree can be the symbol of the peace that Jesus brought, that must be re-established between God and human beings. Because it is evergreen, it is the symbol of that immortality which Jesus said he possessed and would bring to us: "I am the life; those who believe in me even if they die will live". The tree lit by little lights is the symbol of the light that Jesus brought to the world with his birth: "He was the light that shines in the darkness... and enlightens every man..." (cf. Jn 1:4-14). And finally, the fir tree, with its tip pointing to heaven, indicates God's presence to us and the place where we are all awaited.

All this endows the Christmas tree, in harmony with the crib, with the religious and Christian significance of salvation that the Son of God brought to the whole world by his humble birth.

© L'Osservatore Romano

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