Christmas trees are a central part of festive celebrations for many people, adorning living rooms, shopping centres and public streets in the run up to 25th December. They are probably the most iconic Christmas decoration, but what do they have to do with the story of one of the biggest celebrations in the Christian calendar?
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when trying to understand the story of the Christmas tree is the significance of evergreen plants in pagan cultures, and the symbolism of the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year.
Most ancient cultures in the Northern hemisphere would celebrate the winter solstice in some way, and more often than not this would involve the use of plants – a common symbol of life, fertility and rebirth. Even the Ancient Egyptians, living in a region hardly known for its brutal winters, would fill their homes with green palm rushes around the time of the winter solstice. To them it was a celebration of the sun god Ra. In winter he was believed to suffer ill health, causing the cooler temperatures. The solstice marked the beginning of his recovery, it was a celebration of new life.
Similar belief systems could be found in agricultural pagan societies in Europe. Winter marked a point of sickness or death for their sun gods, the solstice marked the point of transition after which the deities would start to recover. Evergreen trees, those which stayed alive through the coldest months, were a reminder that life would continue once the winter was over. Evergreen boughs and trees were therefore a common part of winter solstice celebrations. Vikings considered them the special plant of their sun god Balder, while early-Romans decorated their homes with evergreens during the festival of Saturnalia which honoured the god of Agriculture, Saturn.
These traditions came under fire with the rise of Christianity, the Church desperate to abolish pagan customs. In the third century CE, the decorating of homes with evergreen boughs was strictly prohibited by church authorities.