Anyone who has dug just a little bit into the history of the traditions of Christmas probably knows that the Christmas tree was made popular in the English-speaking world by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. The British royal family had celebrated the tradition of their German ancestors for several decades before that, but it was the marriage of Victoria to her beloved, Germanic Albert that solidified the tradition.
The Germans did indeed begin the traditions we now associate with the Christmas Tree: decorating it with lights and ornaments, bringing it indoors, dancing around it and celebrating with it. These Germanic traditions stretch back to the 16th century.
But trees have not only been associated with Christmas well back into the Middle Ages, they have been an integral part of pagan religion and celebration as far back as anyone can remember.
The tree, particularly the oak tree, was always an important symbol in northern spiritual practice. It represented eternal life and the cycles that all of nature goes through. And what better to be an example of the cycle of life than a living thing that goes through a clear transformation from barren branches, to flowering boughs, to full green, vibrant color, and back to barren branches again? All while dropping seeds that can be seen to sprout into new trees, new life.
Trees have been a part of our spiritual celebrations from the dawn of time. They were a natural part of winter solstice celebrations. I know I didn’t immediately make the connection of the burning of the Yule Log, a key element of pagan solstice observance, but when you think about it, duh, it’s a tree. Out of the ashes of the old, the new is born. Just as Christmas is a celebration of Jesus, the Light of the World, being born.
Now we’ve all heard that Christmas as we celebrate it now is more or less a pagan celebration Christianized. True and not true. Pagan religions already had a winter festival that coincided nicely with the message of Christmas, the return of light to the world, so it was a natural fit to overlap the two. However, Christmas as it was celebrated in the Middle Ages was a far different holiday than it is now.
First of all, it was longer. Much longer. About two weeks. “Christmas” began at the solstice with the burning of the Yule Log, the original Christmas tree. In the Viking culture the Yule Log would be kept burning for 12 days, from Christmas to Twelfth Night, aka Epiphany in the Christian world. Yes, that’s another blending of pagan and Christian traditions.
For the two weeks of this celebration no one would work. It was a fantastic two week holiday. However, no one would work because in an agrarian society there was no work. The celebration was timed the way it was because the harvest was completely gathered and the land was prepared to lay fallow until plowing could begin as the ground softened in the early spring.
This break from work gave people the chance to focus their attention on spiritual things, on the story of Christ, his birth and his life. Once again, trees enter the story. Houses were decorated with holly and pine. These symbols of eternal life harkened back to pagan traditions while also underlining Christian ones. Medieval mythology had it that holly berries had been white until Jesus’s death. The blood of His sacrifice was said to have turned the berries red. So decorating with holly was not just pretty, it was a reminder of the values that made the Middle Ages tick.
And while there were no Christmas trees per se in the Middle Ages, trees were decorated. People would hang apples from trees outside on Christmas Eve to commemorate Adam and Eve. So if you’ve ever wondered why people decorate Christmas trees with red apples or red balls or wondered why balls in the first place, that’s where the idea came from. The Vikings also hung shields and other trophies of war on trees at Christmas.
Back to that Viking Yule Log that burned for 12 days. The end of the Christmas holiday was celebrated on Twelfth Night. This was regarded as the day that the wise men brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. As such, this was originally the day that gifts were exchanged. But the practice of exchanging gifts on Christmas has shifted within the calendar, from Twelfth Night to New Year’s to Christmas and Christmas Eve. There have also been various periods of history when it was discouraged or frowned on to give gifts at all.
Even though a lot of the traditions of Christmas have changed and morphed or been dropped altogether, trees have always been a part of the celebration. They remain one of the most beautiful things about Christmas and a symbol that we can all appreciate.