“The History of Christmas Trees”

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The History of Christmas Trees

By Julian Terry S. Bass

There are many things that come to our minds when we think of Christmas, be it the stockings we hang by the fireplace, the wreaths that adorn our doorsteps and even the milk and cookies we occasionally leave in the living room for our yearly visitor. You could say that Christmas is a very symbolic celebration with many of its traditions holding a place in our hearts going back to our childhoods. 

But if there’s one thing we Filipinos never forget during the holidays, it’s the brilliantly lit Christmas tree that stands as a proud centerpiece. The Christmas Tree maintains its roots as a staple of the Christmas Season on par with the jolly saint himself, and here in The Philippines where Christmas can start as early as September, not a day goes by where our homes and malls stay unlit by these lovely displays

Figure 1. The Christmas Tree at S. Maison from last year
Figure 2. A smaller Christmas Tree in the local Krispy Kreme of Paseo de Magallanes from last year

The Coronavirus has certainly had its dampening effects on all our spirits these holidays, but that hasn’t stopped us from bringing the festivities to the pockets of our own homes and shining the walls with a myriad of red and green.

When I looked at the Christmas Tree concept from a more abstract point of view, I couldn’t help but ask myself:

“Why? What compels us to find some random tree and hang ornaments on it? Couldn’t we use some other object as a frame?”

Sure you can write it off to religion or the passing of tradition, but it’s an interesting topic to look at how we first came up with the idea of using a living tree as an ornament frame.

Going back to ancient civilizations like the Egyptians and Romans, Evergreens (plants with green leaves all year round) saw special symbolic use before the advent of Christianity. People saw defensive properties in these plants that would help ward off evil spirits and illness

Figure 3. A group of Evergreen trees commonly used today for Christmas

On a more religious note, these two civilizations also saw use of Evergreens in venerating their gods. The Egyptians worshiped their sun deity, Ra, by filling their homes with Green Palm Rushes to celebrate Ra recovering from illness. The Romans followed a similar fashion during their “Saturnalia” feast in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, wherein Evergreen boughs decorated their homes and temples.

While these events saw the use of Evergreens, they still don’t supply the hidden link to where trees began use in the way we see today. This is where history sort of blurs as there are many claims from different locations as to where the first instance of the tradition started.

Some believe Fir trees and Hawthorn plants were used in Northern Europe an estimated 1000 years ago for them to flower in their homes during Christmas. For those who did not have the means to afford such plants, small pyramids of wood were erected in homes and decorated with candles and paper

Figure 4. A sample of a Hawthorn plant

It is also widely believed by historians that it was in old Germany where the first true Christmas trees were displayed in homes; those which were decorated with edibles like apples and pretzels. The popular theory states that the 16th-century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, erected the first tree in his home that was wired with lit candles on its branches. The story goes that he took notice of the brilliant night stars over the lush evergreens near his home and sought to recapture the scene for his family

Figure 5. What Martin Luther may have seen that night

That point started the rise in the tradition’s popularity over many nations. While America took notice, they did not accept the idea at first as they saw the trees as pagan (a religious view which opposes the main world religions) symbols which conflicted with the spreading influence of Christianity. The Americans chose to follow their traditional Christian holiday sermons and wrote the trees off as oddities.

This all changed, however, when the Christmas Tree concept made its way to the old United Kingdom. The renowned Queen Victoria and the German Prince Albert took a liking to the idea of an ornamental tree in their home. They then were sketched with a large Christmas Tree in their living room alongside their kids.

Figure 6. The family sketched alongside an early Christmas Tree

The interesting thing here is that their love for the Christmas Tree sparked a new view of the tradition, and not just in Britain but in other nations like America as well. The Americans were very fond of the British royals and seeing them accepting the tradition helped them to accept it themselves. While the Germans continued using apples, nuts and cookies to decorate their trees, the Americans began making their own homemade ornaments which helped morph the Christmas Tree into the modern form we see on our doorsteps today.

Having been absorbed into Christianity sometime around the 19th century, the Christmas Tree along with its apple and candle adornments grew an even greater religious symbolism. The tree represented the fabled Tree of Life, while the bright candles symbolized the light of Christ as guidance and the apples symbolized the early sin of Adam and Eve.

With the modernization of the Christmas Tree in our Philippine setting, some modifications have arisen since then with plastic or artificial trees also being distributed across the country. I find a very refreshing feeling in knowing that our blooming, evergreen idols saw much growth with time from humble decorative beginnings to becoming a religious pillar of society. Whether artificial or real, large or small, public or hidden, we Filipinos share the collective spirit which is the love of the Christmas Tree as it brightens up our holidays, both figuratively and literally.