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The Christmas Tree: Christian or Pagan?

Scott A. Gould

Rasmussen College

Author Note

This research is being submitted on December 14, 2009 for Jodell Sadler’s G124 course at

Rasmussen College by Scott Gould


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The Christmas Tree: Christian or Pagan?

The mingling aromas of freshly baked apple pie and glazed ham infuse the home with savory

enchantment. A fireplace crackles to life as fuzzy red stockings hang from its garland-trimmed

and candle-lined mantle. The Christmas tree; complete with twinkling lights, shimmering

tinsel, and metallic ornaments; stands proud and majestic in front of the huge picture window as

a symbol of the Son’s birth. The Yule tree; complete with twinkling lights, shimmering tinsel,

and metallic ornaments; stands proud and majestic in front of the huge picture window as a

symbol of the Sun’s birth.

Introduction

Donning a home with a decorated evergreen tree is a holiday tradition to many during the month

of December. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, a survey of U.S.

consumers indicates the purchase of more than 28 million real and 11 million artificial Christmas

trees in 2008. In addition, close to 350 million real Christmas trees are currently growing on

Christmas tree farms (2005). The popularity is quite apparent when one looks at the statistics

(see Table 1).

Table 1
Christmas tree purchase figures since 2002 (in millions)

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008

Real 22.2 23.4 27.1 32.8 28.6 31.3 28.2

Artificial 7.4 9.6 9.0 9.3 9.3 17.4 11.7

National Christmas Tree Association. (2005). Consumer survey results. In National Christmas

Tree Association: Digital newsroom [table]. Retrieved December 2, 2009, from

http://www.christmastree.org/‌statistics_consumer.cfm
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Since so many people display an ornamented tree year after year, then the roots of the custom

should be, in the very least, somewhat apparent. The truth is that the exact opposite is true.

Many people ascertain that the Christmas tree tradition began in Christianized Germany;

however the evergreen symbol has roots much deeper in pre-Christian pagan celebrations.

Saint Boniface

One seemingly popular yarn regards Saint Boniface, born as Winfred (ca. 672-754 A.D.).

Known as the “Apostle of the Germans,” Boniface was an eighth century missionary to the

Franks and Saxons and is also referred to as the patron saint of Germany and the Netherlands

(Saint Boniface, 2008). Just as a myth or legend changes from source to source, so does this

story.

Supposedly, Saint Boniface gathered newly baptized Christians around their sacrificial oak tree.

Splitting the tree into four upon being cut down, a young fir sapling appeared at its roots. The

pine was proclaimed to be a symbol of the new-found Christian faith because the shape points

towards heaven and because the evergreen represents eternal life (Tucker, 1997).

This tale becomes further exaggerated by others. While walking through the woods, Winfred

happened upon some pagans who were preparing to sacrifice a child to Thor beneath the oak

tree. He saved the child, apparently with superhuman strength, by chopping the tree down with

one blow of his axe. Again, this action revealed a young fir tree in its place (History, origin,

legend, & decoration of the Christmas tree, n.d.).

After this miracle occurred, Saint Boniface ordered the newly converted Christians to remember

the event by placing the trees inside their homes and surrounding it with gifts (The Christmas

tree, 2008). Timberwind Tree Farm, however, believes that the end resulted with the annual

planting of evergreen saplings (n.d.). In either case, the legend of Saint Boniface is just one of a
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few different stories about the Christmas tree’s origins, and the ever-changing tale identifies

more with a myth. It is not a factual account.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is considered the founder of the protestant faith (History, origin,

legend, & decoration of the Christmas tree, n.d.). A story about him details his walk through the

woods while composing a sermon. Awestruck by the glimmering of stars through the trees, he

decided to take a tree home. Wiring it with candles, he tells his tale to his children (Origin of the

Christmas tree, 2009.; The Christmas tree, 2008).

This tale may be beautiful to some, but its accuracy is debatable. According to a couple sources,

the first record of a Christmas tree did not exist until 60 years after Luther died (Robinson 2005;

Tucker, 1997). Others debate its authenticity through claims that the first Christmas tree was

used in Riga, Latvia and has nothing to do with Martin Luther (Johnson, 2009). Whether the

Christmas tree first appeared someplace else or several decades later, the general consensus

among most is that Martin Luther is not the originator of this highly popular tradition.

Paradise plays

Another option comes to light with the practice of Paradise Plays during the middle ages. The

Paradise Play was performed annually on December 24 to celebrate Adam and Eve Day (Tucker,

1997). The play itself had a very simple set—a fir tree decorated with apples—and was a way of

telling the story during a time when people could not read (History, origin, legend, & decoration

of the Christmas tree, n.d.).

During the time of the paradise plays, it was believed that the fir tree was the Tree of Life

and the tree upon which Christ died. Upon its creation, the tree bore flowers, leaves, and fruit

which shrunk to needles and pinecones after Eve ate its forbidden fruit. This story also dictates

that, on the night of Christ’s birth, the fir tree briefly blossomed once again (Tucker, 1997).
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In the 15th Century, the Paradise Play was banned due to immoral behaviors and other

abuses. Despite this, the Paradise tree was commonplace among the people, and they started

placing the tree in their homes on December 24. The tree gradually evolved to include

homemade wafers, candy, and sweets along with the apples (Bucher, 2006).

The Paradise plays of the middle ages seem to be a plausible origin of the Christmas tree

tradition. The background is verifiable, and the information does not change from source to

source—unlike the legends involving Saint Boniface and Martin Luther. The historical aspects

of the Christmas tree, however, do not stop in the Christianized Middle Ages.

Pre-Christian pagan celebrations

Before the conversion to Christianity, evergreens were often used around the time of the Winter

Solstice. It is also believed that the Christmas holiday may have been placed around this time to

allow pagans to identify with certain Christian beliefs. This theory holds validity since the

Winter Solstice, prior to the calendar used today, fell on December 25 (Crystal, 2009).

Therefore, pagan customs involving the use of evergreens may have been incorporated into

Christmas celebrations (Harrigan, n.d.).

The Winter Solstice is the point in the earth’s cycle when the Northern Hemisphere experiences

the shortest amount of daylight and the longest amount of darkness. It is also around the time

that most plant life seemed to die except for the evergreen. It is for that reason that the evergreen

seemed to have magical properties (Robinson, 2005).

The Egyptians did not have fir trees, but they did have green date palm trees. Each year, around

the time of the solstice, they would decorate homes with palm branches as a symbol of

resurrection—life overcoming death (Robinson, 2005; Robson, n.d., Tucker, 1997).

The Romans celebrated the Feast of Saturnalia around the time of the Winter Solstice which

occurred from December 17 through a few days after the solstice. During this time evergreen
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clippings adorned homes and bits of metal along with replicas of Bacchus ornamented trees

(Robinson, 2005). The masks of Bacchus, god of fertility, would toss in the wind. It is said that

fertility would touch every part of the tree that the mask faced (Tucker, 1997).

Romans also used the evergreen tree in celebration of the sun god, Nimrod. Throughout the

night of the solstice, a Yule log burned. When the sun rose, the log was replaced by a trimming

from an evergreen in commemoration of Nimrod’s resurrection through his son, Tammuz

(Christmas history, 2008). Along with the Yule log tradition, 12 candles were placed on the

evergreen tree to worship of the sun god during the Feast of Saturnalia (Robinson, 2005).

Even before the Paradise tree, Saint Boniface, and Martin Luther; Germans used the fir tree as a

symbol of rebirth during the winter months. The Feast of Yule lasted two months starting in

November. During that time, Germans planted a fir tree in a tub and brought it into the home

(Bucher, 2006). It seems, then, that the pre-Christian Yule tree could very well be the

predecessor to the Paradise tree found in homes of the Middle Ages.

With pagan celebrations found in Germany, Rome, and Egypt during the coldest and

deadest time of year, it seems clear that the tradition of using the magical symbol of the

evergreen tree and its branches existed long before Christianity. Coupled with the fact that the

Christmas holiday was not original to the month of December, but instead placed during the time

of the solstice, one might ascertain that these festivities may be the Christmas tree’s precursor.

Conclusion

Compelling arguments exist for both pagan and Germanic Christian origins of the Christmas tree

custom. It is possible that Saint Boniface did, in fact, utilize the fir tree in his missionary

sermons with German pagans. Some truth may lie in the story about Martin Luther’s walk in the

woods. Paradise Plays were enacted during the middle ages, and they may have spawned the
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tradition of placing the Paradise tree within homes. History is full of, however, pagan traditions

involving the use of conifers during the winter months.

Even though pagan celebrations involving the use of evergreens around the Winter Solstice

precede Christianity and the Christmas holiday, each party has equal claims on the tree custom’s

origins. Whether one celebrates the birth of the son or the resurrection of the sun, the symbol

means something different to its users. It is this diversity of beliefs that makes the evergreen

such a prominent fixture in homes during the winter months.

Do the roots of the Christmas tree tradition stem from Christianized Germany? Yes. Are pre-

Christian pagans responsible for the use of the magical symbol in homes? Yes. Since the tree

symbolizes something different to each religious group, then each has a unique history from

which the tradition originates. Therefore, both Christianity and paganism alike, have equal

claims to their own traditions.


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References

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Bucher, R. (2006). The origin and meaning of the Christmas tree. In Reely’s poetry pages: Cool

Stuff. Retrieved December 11, 2009, from ReelyRedd website:

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Christmas History. (2008). ChristiaNet: Articles. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from ChristiaNet

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Johnson, M. (2009). History of the Riga Christmas tree. In Home of the first Christmas tree.

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