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What is the Origin of the Christmas Tree?

Have you ever wondered where the tradition of the Christmas Tree came from? I've never actually thought about it before, until today. As it turns out the Christmas Tree has a very interesting history.

In actuality, the Christmas Tree predates Christianity. Some pagan cultures saw plants and trees that remained green as having special powers warding away illness, witchcraft and evil spirits. They would use evergreen trees and plants in their homes during the Winter Solstice, hanging them over their doors and windows. The early Romans used it in their temples at the festival of Saturnalia in honour of Saturn, the God of Agriculture. This would be done in anticipation of Spring bringing fruitful crops. Meanwhile ancient Egyptians used evergreen plants as part of their worship of the god Ra, symbolizing life over death. For others, bringing the evergreen into the house represented fertility and new life. It was here too that the use of the Holly, the Ivy and the Mistletoe come into being because they are the few flowering plants at winter and therefore held special significance.

The first documented use of a tree in Christmas and New Year celebrations is debated as being between the cities of Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia: Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510. Both of which were incidentally put up by the 'Brotherhood of Blackheads' which was an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners and foreigners in Livonia (what is now Estonia and Latvia). The trees were erected in their Guild Halls decorated with sweets for the children. They would dance around the tree. There are stories of the market place which would be set afire. It is possible that this is where the Yule Log tradition came from.

The modern day tradition of the Christmas Tree is credited to the Germans in the early 16th Century. Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with gingerbread, nuts, wafers and apples. If someone could not afford a live tree then they would pile up wood in the shape of a tree and decorate it. Over times glass makers starting making ornaments similar to what we use today. Initially the Baby Jesus was placed at the top of the tree, but then it changed to an Angel or a star to commemorate what the Wise Men saw.

It is said that the first person to bring a Christmas Tree into a house, the same way we do it today may have been the 16th century German preacher Martin Luther. The story goes that one night before Christmas he was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful, that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. In an attempt to recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

As the Germans emigrated to different parts of the world, so did the custom of the Christmas Tree. In the US it was seen as a pagan symbol and was feared by early Christians there. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts passed a law making any observance of December 25, other than a church service, a penal offense. Anyone found hanging decorations were fined. This continued until the 19th Century where an influx of German and Irish settlers arrived in the US. The first recorded Christmas Tree on display was in the 1830's in Pennsylvania, although the tradition was quietly practiced by German settlers before.

By the 17th Century the celebrations got bigger throughout the nobility and in the Royal Courts. It is believed that the first Christmas Tree in the UK may have been erected by Queen Charlotte who was the German wife of King George III. In 1800 she placed a tree at Windsor Castle for a children's party which would soon become an annual tradition. A drawing published in the London News in 1848 of "The Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle" showed Queen Victoria, her husband Prince Albert and their young children around a tree on a table. They were popular royals at the time and soon every British home had a tree with decorations, candles and sweets. The same image would be published two years later in the United States in Godey's Lady's Book. Although Victoria's tiara and Albert's moustache were removed to make the image more American. This would lead the Christmas Tree to become popular in the UK and the US.

By the early 20th Century, candles were replaced by electric string of lights. Glass ornaments, coloured strings of popcorn, feathers and other decorations started being used. Artificial Christmas Trees also started becoming popular around this time as well as, different heights and colours of trees used.

Today the tradition of the Christmas Tree is embraced by millions of people around the world, of various religious and cultural backgrounds. It is still seen as a Christmas tradition in which the tree is often erected the first Sunday in Advent. Traditionally the tree would be erected on Christmas Eve. Either way it is removed on the 12th night of Christmas, 5th January, the Eve of the Epiphany.

No matter what type of tree you use, when you erect it or what you use to decorate it, one thing is clear, the tradition of the Christmas Tree is alive and well.

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