How did evergreen trees become a symbol for Christmas?

A brief history on using evergreens as Christmas trees and what they symbolized.

December 6, 2016 - Author: Dixie Sandborn, Michigan State University Extension

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Fresh Christmas trees are just about on every street corner, or waiting to be cut from your local “you cut” tree farm, taken home and dressed in holiday sparkle. How did evergreen trees—whether pine, spruce or fir—become the symbol of Christmas? Why do we cut down a perfectly good tree, drag it in the house and decorate it, yet we couldn’t even consider Christmas without one? There are many legends surrounding the history of Christmas trees and what evergreen trees symbolize.

Here are a few facts on the Christmas tree’s humble beginning:

  • The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years.
  • Pagans used branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to come.
  • Romans used fir trees to decorate their homes for the New Year.
  • Christians used evergreens as a sign of everlasting life with God.
  • Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees. It probably began about 1,000 years ago in Northern Europe.
  • People in Northern Europe also planted evergreens in boxes inside their houses in wintertime.
  • Many early Christmas trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains that were hung from chandeliers/lighting hooks.
  • Other early Christmas trees, in many parts of Northern Europe, were cherry or hawthorn plants, or a branch of the plant, that were put into pots and brought inside so they would flower at Christmas time.
  • Some people made pyramids of wood and decorated them to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles.
  • It's possible the wooden pyramid trees were meant to be like paradise trees.
  • In early church calendars, Dec. 24 was Adam and Eve's day. The paradise tree represented the Garden of Eden.
  • Two cities argue about the first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations, Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia. Both claim they had the first trees; Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510.
  • In the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, there is a plaque that is engraved with "The First New Year's Tree in Riga in 1510” in eight languages.
  • A picture from Germany in 1521 shows a tree being paraded through the streets with a man riding a horse behind it. The man is dressed as a bishop, possibly representing St. Nicholas.
  • There's a record of a small tree in Breman, Germany, from 1570. It is described as a tree decorated with "apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers.”
  • The first person to bring a Christmas tree into a house may have been the 16th century German preacher Martin Luther.

Whatever its’ beginning, the Christmas tree is a symbol of hope for the Christmas season. I enjoy Christmas trees inside and out, large trees down to branches adorning porch pots. A symbol of hope and life during gray, Michigan, winter days.

For more information on Christmas trees from Michigan State University Extension, check out the following articles:

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Tags: 4-h plants, environmental & outdoor education, & gardening, msu extension, science & engineering, soils

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