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What the Christmas Tree Symbolizes

The Christmas tree is the iconic symbol of Christmas. From the enormous glittering tree in Rockefeller Center, to Charlie Brown’s humble bending branch, you can’t separate the Christmas tree from the holiday. Decorations of trees vary from culture to culture—glittering ornaments and lights to popcorn and cranberry garlands to cobwebs (in the Ukraine) and elaborate little sculptures made from radishes (in Mexico). But where did the tradition of the Christmas tree originate, what does it symbolize and how did it become the central symbol of Christmas?

The Christmas tree has a long, rich history rooted, some think, as far back in ancient Egyptian and Roman culture. An evergreen branch over the door was used to ward off evil spirits and to symbolize life and growth during a dormant season. The Celts decorated their temples with green pine branches which symbolized everlasting life. In the 16th century, devout Christians brought evergreen trees into their homes in Germany. It is thought that on a wintery walk through the woods, Martin Luther saw twinkling lights through the trees and recreated the look with his own family in his home for Christmas. He is even credited as the first person who decorated a tree with lights. Most likely they were candles, and thankfully they were extinguished before not only burning the tree, but the whole house down. 

In the early 19th century, the Christmas tree wasn’t popular in America, and many Christians saw this as a pagan symbol of Christmas, but German immigrants decorated their homes with them, and they began to rise in popularity. Queen Victoria catapulted the popularity of the Christmas tree when a detailed sketch of she and her German husband, Prince Albert, and their children around their own decorated Christmas tree, was printed in the Illustrated London News. They were very popular royals, so the Christmas tree was firmly established as popular and fashionable not only in Britain, but also on the east coast in America. By 1890, Christmas ornaments were being imported from Germany into the U.S. And, though smaller, four-foot trees were popular in Europe, the American “go big or go home” attitude influenced even Christmas tree selection, and many Americans liked oversized, floor-to-ceiling trees. With the electric light, trees could shine every hour of the day, and soon Christmas trees were a common sight in city centers, churches, and towns across the U.S.

The symbol of the Christmas tree was adopted from the pagan tradition and adopted into the Christian tradition. Because Christmas is the holiday that celebrates the birth of Christ, as a light in the dark world, the lit tree was a reminder of that light. The Christmas tree also represents the Tree of Life, commonly recognized as the most important tree in the garden of Eden. Some people decorate with apples or apple ornaments, or a single apple ornament, which symbolized knowledge and reminded the devout Christian of original sin, and the lights symbolized Christ’s dealing with sin and turning darkness into light. 

Whether Christmas is a holiday to express religious belief or a time to celebrate with family and friends with good food, laughter and gifts or both, the Christmas tree is central to many family’s celebrations. At Old World Christmas, we love it when our ornaments create personal symbols and meaning for your Christmas tree and for the tree’s of the people you love the most. 

March 09, 2020 by Rachael Mitchell

Written by

Rachael Mitchell

Rachael Mitchell is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington, and has over 15 years of writing experience. She’d never be able to pick just one favorite ornament, but narrowed it down to the S’more and Tennis Ball. She always looks forward to s’mores in the summer with friends and family adding gourmet ingredients, and played 4 years of college tennis in the mid-west.

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