thoughts about pieces of the past
Christmas greenery traditions come from ancient beliefs about luck and good fortune.
Because evergreens thrive, and in the case of holly and mistletoe produce fruit, when all other plants are dormant or dead, they have long been seen as symbols of luck, fertility, victory, and long life.1 The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews used evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands as religious decorations to symbolize undying life, and tree worship spread to Europe long before Christianity. Scandinavians decorated their houses and barns with evergreens at New Year’s to frighten the devil away.2
The modern Christmas tree comes from Western Germany. As early as the middle ages, Germans put up “paradise trees”, fir trees hung with apples to symbolize the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, in their homes on Dec. 24, and hung wafers on them, symbolizing the Christian communion wafer. Later, the wafers became decorative baked cookies, and candles (symbols of Christ, the “light of the world”), were added. People also had Christmas “pyramids,” triangular green shelves like trees, filled with Christmas figurines, and covered with evergreens, candles, and a star. (The star on top of traditional Christmas trees probably represents the Star of Bethlehem.) By the 1500’s, these two decorations combined to become the modern Christmas tree.3
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband, popularized Christmas trees after his arrival in England in 1839. First editions of A Christmas Carol (1843) do not show Christmas trees, but a newspaper illustration of the royal family celebrating Christmas in 1848 features one prominently. Victorian trees had toys, little gifts, candles, sweets, and paper chains on them. German settlers also brought Christmas tree traditions to America, beginning in the 1600’s. The trees were also popular in the Netherlands, Poland, Austria and Switzerland. Missionaries to China and Japan introduced Christmas trees there, where they were decorated with delicate paper designs. In the 1870’s British and American stores began offering blown-glass ornaments, tinsel, and cotton “snow” batting.4
The first electric Christmas tree lights were sold around 1890 in the US.5