What’s your Christmas tree tradition? The origins of a holiday symbol

Did you know the earliest traces of the Christmas tree tradition are most likely pagan and originally had something to do with the celebration of winter solstice, the year’s longest night? The application of plants in the home for religious celebrations can be traced all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and Romans.

As far as we can tell, the use of the first modern Christmas tree was developed in medieval Livonia, in current day Latvia and Estonia. Tallinn claims to have set the first modern Christmas tree ceremoniously on fire in their town square in 1441, while Riga claims to have done the same thing in 1510. The latter still has a plaque commemorating the occasion.

It is 16th-century devout German Lutherans who are credited, however, with adopting the practice as a Christian tradition, decorating their trees with apples, pretzels, paper flowers, and other ornaments. It’s also these Protestant reformers who first added lighted candles to the tree which were eventually replaced by Christmas lights after the arrival of electricity.

The Christmas tree became more popular in Europe as the German custom made its way across the continent. The British royal family were photographed with one at Windsor Castle in 1841 and took up the tradition every year thereafter. Soon the custom made it across the ocean to the United States, although it took the better part of the 19th century to get accepted by the new England Puritans who originally labeled it as pagan mockery to be stamped out. By the 1890s the first Christmas ornaments arriving from Germany were a clear indicator that the trees popularity was on the rise in the United States as well. Americans developed a fondness for larger trees reaching from floor to ceiling. Trees in Europe tend to be smaller.

The Christmas tree was adopted by Christianity but never entirely at home in it. Today it can be a completely secular symbol of the end-of-year holiday celebrations. From Germany to Mexico where el Nacimiento often has an arbolito incorporated, over Greenland where trees have to be imported, to Brazil where it is summer in December, it is hard to imagine the end of year without the Christmas tree we know and love today.

Do you like the smell of fresh pine needles in the house? Or do you prefer your tree without the shedding all over the floor? Does yours get stored in the attic to be reused next year or do you go cut it fresh from a tree farm every December? Do you like it small or tall? What makes your Christmas tree special?

Stefan Huyghe
Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.


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