It’s Christmas Eve and what is a Christmas without a Christmas tree? The most colourful aspect of Christmas is the Christmas tree and something that brings the whole family in decorating it. But how did the idea of a Christmas tree begin and what does it stand for?
Let’s take a look at history and mythology.
The Christmas tree is generally a conifer, which is either a Pine of a Fir tree. Both the trees are evergreen trees and thus a symbol of immortality as represented by Jesus, who came back after death.
Trees have always held a very significant place in all cultures, be it Greek and Roman in the form of ivy or mistletoe for the Celts or the numerous trees worshiped by the Hindus. The tree holds a significant position in many other cultures like the Mayans, Japanese, Muslims and many others. But today we won’t go into the comparative aspect of the tree-symbolism of all cultures.
The origin of the Christmas tree can be traced to ancient Germany. According to a legend which dates back to the 8th Century, there was an English Bishop, St. Boniface, who was on a mission from Rome, to preach Christianity to the native Germans. After a successful stint at preaching, he had to visit Rome to meet the Pope. When he returned after a long time, he was shocked to see that people had gone back to their older Nordic divinities and were getting ready to celebrate the Winter Solstice by sacrificing a man at the foot of the Odin’s sacred tree, which was the Oak tree. This enraged the Bishop so much that he picked up an axe and struck a blow at the huge Oak tree. It is said that with the very first blow, a strong gush of wind brought the tree down! This brought the shocked Germans to their knees and asked the Bishop the way to celebrate Christmas. The Bishop noticed a small fir tree which had withstood the fall of the Oak tree, and he advised all to take fir trees inside their houses, keeping with the Nordic tradition of keeping an evergreen tree inside homes during the winter.
The tree signifies peace and immortality, with its top pointing upwards indicating the Heavens. Many also feel that the tree has its roots in the Nordic belief of sacred trees, especially Thor’s Oak tree and the mythological Yggdrasil (Read more in Norse Mythology – Yggdrasill, the World). The choice of the Pine or the Fir is also significant, especially when all the plants die in the severe winters of the Scandinavian countries, it was only these two which retained their life, symbolising the immortality of the pagan gods. Many feel that this was the beginning of the concept of setting up Christmas tree and soon the missionaries took it back to their countries, like England, USA and other countries.
The decoration and ornamentation ideas evolved from fresh fruits and dry fruits to gifts and other ornamentation like the baubles, candies, stars and all sorts of things in the modern times. The top most part of the tree is usually adorned with a star, known as the Christmas Star, which represents the Star of Bethlehem, which announced the birth of Jesus to the Magi and later led them to the stable where Jesus Christ was born.
There is another interesting legend associated with the Fir tree. According to this one, when Christ was born, all living creatures headed towards Bethlehem carrying gifts for the baby Christ. All the trees like the Palm, Olive, etc. had brought their fruits for the child. The little Fir tree had brought nothing, besides the fact that it was so tired, that it was unable to resist the push by the larger trees and soon was right at the end of the huge crowd. An angel took pity on the Fir and asked some of the stars to adorn the tree. When baby Jesus saw the beautiful tree, he smiled and blessed it and declared that from then onwards Fir trees should be decorated with lights for Christmas to please all the children. Initially the tree was lit up with candles, but with the advent of bulbs, the tree started being adorned with bulbs and many other trinkets, toys, candles, etc.
Let me conclude with another interesting myth related to the Pine tree. It is said that when the Holy family was being chased by Herod’s soldiers, a Pine tree gave shelter to the tired Mary, who could barely move. The tree allowed the family to rest inside its hollow bark and gave them shelter till the soldiers had left. On leaving, baby Christ blessed the Pine tree and it is said that if you cut the Pine cone, lengthwise, one could see the imprint of baby Christ’s tiny hands!
For all who have Christmas Trees in their homes and for all who don’t, here’s wishing all of you a Merry Christmas and happy holidays ahead.
For Santa Claus read - Santa Claus