History of the Christmas Tree

Bill Petro
5 min readDec 7, 2020
White House Christmas Tree

It is generally believed that the first Christmas tree was of German origin dating from the time of St. Boniface, an English missionary to Germany in the 8th century. He replaced the sacrifices to the Norse god Odin’s sacred oak — some say it was Thor‘s Thunder Oak — with a fir tree adorned in tribute to the Christ Child.

The legend is told that Boniface found a group of “pagans” preparing to sacrifice a boy near an oak tree near Lower Hesse, Germany. He cut down the oak tree with a single stroke of his ax and stopped the sacrifice. A small fir tree sprang up in place of the oak. He told the pagans that this was the “tree of life” and stood for Christ.

Middle Ages

A legend began to circulate in the early Middle Ages that when Jesus was born in the dead of winter, all the trees throughout the world shook off their ice and snow to produced new shoots of green. The medieval Church would decorate outdoor fir trees, known as “paradise trees,” with apples on Christmas Eve. They called it “Adam and Eve Day” and celebrated with a play.

Renaissance

During Renaissance times, there are records that trees were being used as symbols for Christians first in the Latvian capital of Riga in 1510. One story goes that it was attended by men wearing black hats in front of the House of Blackheads in the Town Hall Square, who, following a ceremony, burnt the tree. But whether it was for Christmas or Ash Wednesday is still debated.

I’ve stood in that very square myself in the Winter, years ago, surrounded by snow.

Germany

Accounts persist that Martin Luther introduced the tree lighted with candles in Wittenberg, Germany, in the mid 16th century. He often wrote and preached on Advent and Christmas. He loved Christmas and wrote at least five hymns about it. One of his students wrote of Luther saying:

For this is indeed the greatest gift, which far exceeds all else that God has created. Yet we believe so sluggishly, even though the angels proclaim and preach and sing, and their lovely song sums up the whole Christian faith, for “Glory to God in the highest” is the very heart of worship.

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Bill Petro

Writer, historian, technologist. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com