Jessica Palmer Photo
The Christmas tree, or evergreens, as a form of winter decoration dates back to ancient times. Trees that remained green all year were symbols of resurrection and life during the coldest, darkest months of the year. People hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows to ward off evil spirits.
The Romans marked the shortest day of the year with the feast of Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. They decorated their temples and homes with evergreen trees as a reminder that farms and orchards would soon be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
Likewise, in Northern Europe, the Druid priests used evergreens as a symbol of everlasting life. The Vikings attributed the evergreens to the sun god, Balder.
In Christian times, Christmas trees originated in Renaissance Germany when small trees were brought into the home, although they are also associated with St. Boniface (675 – 754) and his conversion of the German people.
Alternatively, it is identified with the tree of paradise in medieval mystery plays that were given on Dec. 24 and the commemoration of Adam and Eve, where a tree was decorated with apples (forbidden fruit) and wafers for the Eucharist as symbols of redemption.
In Latvia and Estonia, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, an association of unmarried merchants and ship owners, erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Riga and Reval, in 1441, 1442, 1510 and 1514.
Although bringing the Christmas tree to England is often credited to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, the tree made its first appearance after George III’s marriage to German-born queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, when she gave a Christmas party for children in 1800. Queen Victoria was already familiar with trees that the family decorated while she was a child, but Prince Albert popularized it.
The tradition was viewed with distrust by the Puritan settlers of America. The church fathers fought the frivolity of Christmas and its pagan representation, the tree.
In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of Dec. 25, other than church services, a penal offense. People were fined for hanging pagan decorations. Elsewhere, though, the Pennsylvania Dutch maintained community trees as early as 1747.
The Christmas tree was introduced to Canada in the winter of 1781 by Brunswick soldiers stationed in Quebec. Gen. Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel, held a Christmas party, delighting their guests with a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.
The Christmas tree became accepted by the American culture around the 1840s. It became a regular feature of the American Christmas décor in the 1880s. Both dates span the time thought of as the Victorian era and perhaps this is why Prince Albert is believed to have brought the Germanic tradition to the English-speaking world.