Article

Exploring the Curious Origins of the Christmas Tree

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, nobody knows your origin.

Published Dec 12, 2023

 (NurPhoto / Getty Images)
Image Via NurPhoto / Getty Images

"Twas the Night Before Christmas" is an iconic piece of poetry by today's standards, with its description of jolly old St. Nick and his eight reindeer helping create the modern depiction of Santa Claus. But in the text poem, one very large, green Christmas tradition is curiously missing: the Christmas tree. The simple explanation is that the tree wasn't yet a popular tradition in America when the poem was published.

But the two iconic Christmas staples share something interesting: an open debate about their origins. And while the poem's unclear history is certainly interesting, we at least know it was first published in 1823. But for the Christmas tree, the history is much longer and much more convoluted. Three separate theories track the tree back to the 1400s or 1500s, while two others delve even further into the past. But some of the theories are definitely more accurate than others.

Below, we outline the big ones in chronological order:

Pre-Christian Theories

Some sources claim that the Christmas tree has its origins in pre-Christian traditions and generally offer a few winter solstice celebrations that share things with modern Christmas. First is the Roman festival of Saturnalia, celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. A time of festivity for all, Saturnalia featured acts of goodwill, small gift exchanges, and large feasts.

But don’t be fooled, it’s not the only solstice holiday with similarities.

Yule, a Germanic holiday celebrated in late December, shares similarities with Christmas, featuring feasts and, famously, the Yule log, which has survived into the modern day. Sources like the Saga of Haakon the Good, from 11th-century Norway, described King Haakon I, a Catholic, ordering Yule and Christmas to be celebrated on the same date, creating a connection between the two celebrations.

Finally, Celtic traditions might also have links. Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote in “Natural History” that Celtic druids used plants like mistletoe in religious ceremonies. And while mistletoe itself is not a tree, it is an evergreen plant, suggesting that evergreens in general have a long history in religious traditions in general.

But when searching in this era for the use of full-size trees as decorations, the results are mixed. While some articles claim that Romans decorated their houses with evergreens at Saturnalia, these articles often either do not have supporting evidence or make dubious connections, like a reference to a Roman poem by Catullus that describes cypresses and laurels being used to decorate … for a wedding. Meanwhile, Pliny’s “Natural History” does not describe any traditions associated with trees, backing up the assertion that these decorations were limited to other evergreens.

So while there were surely some things that slowly became incorporated into Christmas from these pagan holidays, there’s no good evidence that the Christmas tree itself is one of those traditions. Mistletoe, holly, and greenery in general, sure, but the historical evidence just doesn’t seem to support a whole tree.

Saint Boniface

During the early 700s, a Catholic missionary from England named Winfrid began a mission of evangelization in Germany. Today, we call him Saint Boniface. His life was recorded remarkably soon after his death by a priest named Willibald, who gathered his information by speaking with many of Boniface’s followers. According to Willibald’s biography, the “Vita Bonifatii,” while the missionary was spreading Catholicism in Hesse, now a state in Germany, he encountered a group of pagans who were worshipping a sacred tree. Willibald calls this the “Oak of Jupiter,” although it was probably dedicated to some version of the Norse thunder god Thor rather than the Roman Jupiter. Regardless:

Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly, the oak's vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord. Thereupon the holy bishop took counsel with the brethren, built an oratory from the timber of the oak and dedicated it to Saint Peter the Apostle.

According to legend, after Boniface had felled the Oak of Jupiter, a small fir tree sprouted in its place. Boniface explained to the pagan crowd that the fir, with its evergreen leaves representing everlasting love and its triangular shape resembling the Holy Trinity, would make for a much better tree to worship. But as it turns out, the Christmas tree connection was added much later. Observant readers might notice that Willibald's retelling, the earliest account of Boniface cutting down the oak, does not mention a fir tree at all. We feel comfortable ruling this origin story out entirely.

The Paradise Play

The third claim feels a little more modern and therefore a little more plausible. Meet the Paradise Play: In the mid-1800s, an Austrian linguist named Karl Julius Schroer recorded three plays from a small island village, Oberufer, near modern-day Bratislava, Slovakia. These plays, Schroer claimed, were traditionally performed around Christmastime, and had been passed down for generations — the plays were already old when the Oberufer was founded by settlers emigrating from one side of Austria (Lake Constance) to the other (the border with Slovakia) in the 16th or 17th century.

According to Schroer, the Paradise Play, covering the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, used a fir tree decorated with apples to represent the tree containing the forbidden fruit, and was traditionally performed on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, since it’s unclear when the plays were first performed, nobody can definitively say whether the tree used in the Paradise Play was later adopted as the Christmas tree, but given the timing of the two theories that follow below, this proposal feels closer to the truth than the last two.

Renaissance Guilds

This theory quickly veers into a bit of Baltic geopolitics. As The New York Times reported in 2016, the capital cities of Estonia and Latvia (Tallinn and Riga, respectively) both claim the first Christmas tree, with Riga’s claim in 1510 and Tallinn in 1441. Pretty cut and dry, right? Again, no.

First, the good news: Both claims follow the same story. In that story, the Brotherhood of Black Heads, a merchant’s guild active in both countries, cut down a tree, decorated it, paraded it around town, and then set it on fire. (As a side note, Snopes does not recommend setting your Christmas tree on fire.)

But the bad news: A Latvian historian, Gustavs Strenga, said neither claim was that accurate. Strenga talked with NPR (and is also quoted in the same New York Times article) and explained that while the celebrations involving trees did have some evidence backing them up, the Christmas-trees connection was added by 19th-century Baltic historians. That hasn’t stopped the two countries from arguing about it, though.

“I’ve been called the Grinch,” Strenga told The New York Times.

German Protestants

In 1517, Martin Luther published his “95 Theses” in Wittenberg, Germany, beginning the Protestant Reformation. Around the same time, in a nearby German-speaking area, we find evidence of decorated fir trees at Christmas. In Alsace, now a part of France, a 1521 record from the town of Selestat described paying guards to protect the town's fir trees in early December.

There are earlier references. A 2020 blog post explored a claim that the cathedral of Strasbourg, also in Alsace, purchased trees to celebrate the new year in 1492, and that a guild in nearby Freiburg decorated a tree with apples and cookies all the way back in 1419. However, neither Snopes nor the blog's author could verify these earlier claims, so we’ll go with 1521.

This leads nicely back to the Protestants: One legend says that Martin Luther himself invented the Christmas tree. Like Saint Boniface, he reportedly chose an evergreen to symbolize the everlasting goodness and love of God but decorated the tree with candles to symbolize the star that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. This is almost certainly apocryphal, but the story does have one element of truth: German Lutherans and other Protestant groups were early adopters of the tree.

It was likely from them that the tree spread to other areas. The German-born Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III of England, introduced the tree to the U.K., where it was further popularized by Queen Victoria.

In North America, Snopes found references to trees as early as the U.S. formation itself. One legend said the first tree was in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, in 1777. The Goethe Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading German culture, placed the first North American Christmas tree in Sorel, Quebec, Canada, in 1781. About a century later, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison set up the first Christmas tree in the White House in 1889.

But overall, Germany kept coming up.

Strenga, the Latvian historian, claimed the Christmas tree was a German invention, and the merchants of Brotherhood of Black Heads might have picked up the tradition after trading with cities in northern Germany. The settlers of Oberufer came from nearby Lake Constance, only 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Strasbourg, the largest city in Alsace. Saint Boniface helped spread Christianity to the middle of Germany. And while the Romans never conquered Germany, Celtic and Germanic (later Norse) cultures that celebrated Yule did.

So: When did the Christmas tree appear? Nobody knows for sure. Who started it? That too, is unclear. But we can at least make an educated guess on where the tree came from: somewhere in Germany.

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Jack Izzo is a Chicago-based journalist and two-time "Jeopardy!" alumnus.