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Where Did the Christmas Tree Come From?

We are here in the middle of December, and that means we are in the throes of the Christmas season. Everybody is thinking about their Christmas traditions, their Christmas celebrations. And as we are in the lead-up to Christmas, I want to focus on some of our Christmas traditions over this week and next week. The reality is we don’t just celebrate Christmas; we celebrate Christmas with all sorts of traditions with all sorts of customs. And what I want to do is evaluate some of those traditions and customs and find out where we get them and what they mean. There are a few traditions that are as noticeable and as apparent as the Christmas tree. Most of you listening to this, maybe every single last one of you listening to this, will have a Christmas tree. Many of you will have multiple Christmas trees in your house. You go to churches that are decked out with Christmas trees, and I want us to ask, why is that? Where did that come from? We need to be very honest at the beginning and admit that this tradition of a Christmas tree is not in the Bible. And so, for Christians who love Jesus and love the Bible, and who love Christmas, why do we have as such a central part of our celebration a tradition of a Christmas tree that’s not in the Bible?

The Ancient World

Well, let’s talk about this tradition and where it came from. It began with very, very ancient roots. Those ancient roots have two themes running through them. One is that for all of human history, winter has been seen as a time of darkness and of death. It’s seen as a time of darkness and of death because the days are so short it gets dark very early in the wintertime. And because nothing is alive. There aren’t things growing as a general rule in this time of winter that relates to another theme that runs through the ancient roots. And that is evergreens being seen as a symbol of life. I said, in general, things aren’t growing and alive in the time of winter. But there are some exceptions to that. And the big exception is evergreens, pine trees, firs, birches, these kinds of things that stay green throughout the entire year. Those evergreens come to be seen in times of darkness and death as a symbol of life. It’s a point of celebration when you’re walking through the dark death of winter, and there’s an evergreen tree that seems full of life. Those two realities help undergird some of the ancient roots and practices of what ultimately came to be known as Christmas trees. First of all, we need to think back to this going all the way back to ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra. And in the wintertime, again, a time of darkness and death. They believe this was happening because this was the time of the year when the sun god Ra got sick. At the winter solstice, which happens in the early 20s of December, it is the shortest day of the year. The days are getting shorter and shorter and shorter up to the early 20s of December. And after that, they get longer and longer and longer. So this is the midpoint of winter. And after that, we’re moving from winter into spring, and the Egyptians would celebrate the winter solstice, the low point of Ra’s illness. They believed in his return to health; they would celebrate his wellness with palms that were green. We also know in many parts of the world that in this time of darkness and death at winter when it was dark and kind of creepy out. These evergreen symbols of life would be used to ward off what was believed to be witches and ghosts. In ancient Rome, the ancient Romans had a popular holiday called Saturnalia, Saturnalia was based on the God of agriculture whose name was Saturn, and Saturnalia also happens at the winter solstice on the other side of Winter Solstice, it means that spring is coming, agriculture is going to return life is going to return. And so Saturnalia is celebrated with evergreens and with trees. That’s all the ancient world.

Germany in the 1500s

It started to move into a connection with Christianity, away from sun gods and gods of agriculture and witches. It starts the Evergreen tradition, and the Christmas tree tradition starts to move into Christianity in the 1500s in Germany. In Germany in the 1500s, committed Christians would begin to move these trees, these evergreen trees, into their homes at Christmas time as a celebration of the eternal life that Jesus brings. If wood was in short supply, or if you were particularly poor, there could be a small, wooden little pyramid-shaped thing that would be in your house that would be covered with some evergreen, but it started in Germany, and actually, Martin Luther is said to have created the first illuminated Christmas tree. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, who recovered the preaching of the Gospel from the Middle Ages, Martin Luther is said to have been walking home at night, and he saw the stars twinkling amidst the evergreen trees, and he thought it was beautiful and he wanted to recreate the scene for his kids at home. And so he came home, and he brought an evergreen tree into the house, and he decked it out with candles and lit them. I have not been able to establish whether that is absolutely positively historical fact or not or whether it is just legend. But it is fascinating that in the history of this amazing and widespread practice of Christmas trees at our Christmas celebrations that, the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther is attributed with a key development in the Christmas tree tradition.

All that’s still hundreds of years ago, though; how did the Christmas tree become such a popular icon? Well, it was initially connected the Christmas tree was with Christianity from Germans, and it was German settlers who brought the practice to America. It wasn’t popular in America to celebrate Christmas with a Christmas tree because it was seen as a pagan symbol. They were remembering back to the Egyptian sun god and witches and ghosts and Saturnalia and the god of agriculture. And they wanted to have a more pristine in their mind celebration of Christmas. And so, it wasn’t popular outside of German communities in America until 1846. And in 1846, something happened that changed the trajectory of Christmas trees in America and all over the world. And it was a picture. It was a picture that appeared in The Illustrated London News. It was a picture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children. Queen Victoria was amazingly popular in Great Britain she was amazingly popular across the world. People loved to know what Queen Victoria was doing in much the same way we love to know what Royals are doing these days. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their kids were portrayed in The Illustrated London News in 1846 around their Christmas tree. And that picture in 1846 went viral. As things went viral back then, everybody saw this picture on both sides of the Atlantic, and everybody wanted a beautiful tree like what Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had. That was the rocket ship that launched the popularity of the Christmas tree.

The Christmas Tree Today

That popularity only grew when in the early 1900s, electric lights made it possible for you to put illumination around your tree in a way that was much safer than how Martin Luther is alleged to have done with candles. Once it became safe to illuminate your trees, it became safe to have this beautiful glowing tree in your house. We all know you could put Christmas lights on a skunk, and it would look better. Christmas lights on a Christmas tree just made it look beautiful. And now, different estimates indicate that more than 80% of people in the United States of America decorate their homes with a Christmas tree. Did it start out as a pagan symbol? Yes, it did. But if you are like me in my house, when we put up our Christmas trees, we’re not thinking about the sun god Ra. We’re not thinking about witches and goblins. We’re not thinking about the Roman god of agriculture. We’re thinking about Jesus. We’ve said to our kids all these years that everybody in our house has a birthday and every birthday is important, but there’s only one person who has a birthday that’s so important that we redecorate the whole house and we do it for a month, and we put up this tree, and it’s an evergreen tree, and it is a symbol of life. It’s a symbol of life that we have in Christ, and those twinkling lights help us to remember and celebrate his birth. There is not a dash of paganism in it. There is a lot of joy and light and life and celebration. That is how we got to the Christmas tree.