Christmas Tree Controversy

By editor - 27.12 2017

Christmas trees are a central part of Christmas celebrations around the world. Families gather around them to exchange gifts, cities put them up in squares and town halls, you'll find them in nearly every hotel and shopping mall...

But where did the "Christmas tree" come from? Why do we decorate them? Who made the first artificial Christmas tree? Although you probably have your own Christmas tree each year, you may not know the very interesting history behind them.

Pagan Origins

Although there's some debate as to whether the Christmas tree as it's used today has pagan origins, it's clear that several non-Christian cultures brought evergreen plants indoors at the time of the winter solstice.

Christian Beginnings

The first use of Christmas trees as they're known today dates back to the 1500's. Some claim the tree originated in Germany in the mid 1500's, others claim it was Latvia in the early 1500's, and a few even believe in a legend that St. Boniface created the Christmas tree in the 7th century.

Today's Christmas Trees

Today Christmas trees come in many forms...natural and artificial, undecorated, decorated with candles, lights, ornaments, and treats...colored, fiber optic, and even upside down Christmas trees!

Controversy

The Christmas tree is not without controversy. It has been condemned as a pagan symbol, renamed a "holiday tree" and removed from public spaces due to political correctness, and blasted by environmentalists!

Pagan Origins

Dating back centuries before Christ, cultures brought evergreen trees, plants, and leaves into their homes upon the arrival of the winter solstice, which occurs in the northern hemisphere between December 21st and 22nd. Although the specific practices were different in each country and culture, the symbolization was generally the same: to celebrate the return of life at the beginning of winter's decline.

Egyptians particularly valued evergreens as a symbol of life's victory over death. They brought green date palm leaves into their homes around the time of the winter solstice.

Romans had a public festival called Saturnalia, which lasted one week beginning on December 17th, and included a variety of celebrations around the winter solstice. Curiously, the Roman winter solstice was marked on December 25th on the Julian calendar. These celebrations are thought to have merged with pagan practices of hanging mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log.

In Britain, the Yule log was originally seen as a magical amulet, and eventually made it into the hand's of Father Christmas. In Italy the Yule log is still burned for the "Festa di Ceppo". In Catalonia, the log is wrapped in a blanket until Christmas Eve, when it's unwrapped and burned for the custom of "fer cagar el tio". And in Serbia, families bring the Yule log (known as a "badnjak") into their homes on Christmas Eve to be burned along with prayers to God to bring happiness, luck, and riches.

[Christmas Tree] Druid priests in Great Britain also used evergreen plants and mistletoe in pagan ceremonies, and the mistletoe plant was the symbol of the birth of a god. Celtic Druids and Norseman of Scandinavia also used mistletoe in a mysterious ceremony just after the winter solstice.

In the mid 1500's, Germans began using evergreen trees as a symbol of hope for the coming of spring. This practice is likely to have gradually evolved from pagan rituals of past, and merged with the celebration of Christmas leading to the tree's Christian beginnings.

Christian Beginnings

Although it's unlikely that the Christmas tree as we know it today was first used in the 7th Century, some people believe the idea for the tree was invented by St. Boniface at that time. There are different legends regarding how St. Boniface invented the Christmas tree. Some claim he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to symbolize the Holy Trinity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to un-believers, and that these new converts began to worship the tree as a Christian symbol. Another version of this legend claims that St. Boniface chopped down an oak tree worshiped by pagans, and used a fir tree growing in the roots of the oak as a symbol of Jesus.

There are also claims that the first proper Christmas tree was erected in Riga, Latvia in 1510. Today, there is a plaque in the Town Hall Square in Riga that is engraved with the text "The First New Year's Tree in Riga in 1510". It is believed that this tree was burned during a New Year's celebration, and possibly decorated with paper flowers. However, it seems more likely that this celebration was related more to the Christmas tree's pagan past.

The most likely Christian beginnings of the modern Christmas tree were in the mid 1500's in Germany. In 1521 in the region of Alsace (formerly part of Germany), the first pine tree was decorated and used in a Christmas celebration. In 1539, in the Cathedral of Strasbourg, there are church records that state a Christmas tree was used for the Christmas celebration. And in 1570 there are reports from a Bremen guild cronical that a fir tree was decorated with fruits and nuts which children ate on Christmas day.

In the 1700's the Christmas tree custom had spread throughout northern Germany, and people began decorating the tree with candles that were lit on Christmas Eve, as is still done today in many homes across Europe. As the Christmas tree custom spread through Germany, the Roman Catholic Church eventually recognized it in the early 1800's. It was introduced to Vienna in 1816, quickly spreading across Austria, and in 1840 to France by the duchesse d'Orleans.

The Christmas tree was introduced separately in different US cities by German immigrants, most likely in the mid 1700's. Several US cities claim to have had the first Christmas tree in America. Bethlehem, PA appears to have had the first decorated Christmas tree in 1747 at the German Moravian Church settlement, however it was made by putting evergreen branches on a wooden pyramid! Windsor Locks, CT claims they have earliest date in 1777, while Easton, PA also claims the first Christmas tree in 1816! Since these first real Christmas trees, there have been many changes leading to today's modern Christmas tree!

Today's Christmas Trees

The Christmas tree has come a long way, from its pagan origins as an evergreen symbol of life in pre-Christian times to its rapid spread throughout Europe and America in the 1800's. Today it's the center of most Christmas celebrations around the world, and comes in a huge variety of styles.

In 1851 Mark Carr opened the first Christmas tree retail lot in New York, and from that time onward the use of Christmas trees in family homes took off. While most people now purchase their trees from Christmas tree lots (where the vast majority of Christmas trees are now sold), a substantial number get them from "cut your own" farms. Additionally, artificial Christmas trees have become more and more popular in recent years.

While most people imagine artificial Christmas trees to be a recent invention, they've actually been in use as long as natural Christmas trees have in the United States. In fact it appears the first use of a Christmas tree in America was an artificial one made of evergreen branches attached to wooden pyramids in 1747. Artificial trees were also made of feathers in Germany, and mass produced with brush bristles (using the same machinery made to manufacture toilet brushes!) in 1930 by Addis Brush Company in the USA.

Today's artificial trees come in an amazing variety of styles, from flocked and colored trees in such outlandish colors as black, pink, and red, to upside down trees (which also surprisingly have old roots in Germany and Austria). Whether people use real or artificial trees, today they're almost always decorated with a combination of lights, ornaments, other foliage, and treats. Most families around the world place presents beneath their trees to be opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, and you'll find them in nearly every place of business in the weeks before Christmas.

Throughout the history of the Christmas tree there's been plenty of controversy surrounding it, and the controversy hasn't ceased to this day!

Christmas Tree Controversy

Although to most people the Christmas tree is fondly thought of as a symbol of Christmas, it's no stranger to controversy. In 1851 the pastor of a Cleveland church was condemned for engaging in a pagan practice by decorating a Christmas tree! Puritans actually banned Christmas in New England, and the Roman Catholic Church regarded the Christmas tree as a protestant custom until they realized its spread was beyond their control. Oliver Cromwell preached against decorating Christmas trees on such a "sacred event" as Christmas. And even today some Christian groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, are against the use of the Christmas tree.

But it doesn't stop there. In the year 2000 in Eugene, Oregon the city manager declared a Christmas tree could not be put on city property, because it was a religious symbol that violated the separation of church and state. In 2004 in the Bellevue City Hall, their Christmas tree was called a "giving tree" to make "everybody feel welcome". In 2005 the city of Boston began calling their Christmas tree a "holiday tree", and also in 2005 the hardware chain Lowe's began labeling their trees "holiday trees" and "family trees"! In all of these cases there was such strong public outrage that the decisions have been reversed. But the controversy still remains, with some believing the use of the Christmas tree in public places amounts to religious discrimination. Companies including Sears, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Gap, Pet Smart, and Home Depot have all switched to using the term holiday in place of Christmas at one time or another! You'll even find websites devoted to this topic, such as DefendChristmas.com.

If that's not enough, there's also the yearly controversy regarding natural vs. artificial Christmas trees, with some environmentalists arguing that no kind of Christmas tree should be used at all!