In most parts of the world, Winter is cold and harsh; the Christmas tree, with its ornaments and twinkling lights, is a sign of warmth and gaiety. The Christmas tree is such a popular symbol of the winter holiday that it has been adopted by people of many faiths all over the world. The custom of decorating an evergreen with lights and ornaments is ostensibly Christian, but its roots lie deep in the Pagan past.
Many ancient cultures perceived trees to be symbols of the universe, and trees were often associated with the many pagan solar deities whose birthdays were celebrated during the winter solstices. In ancient times, the survival of mankind was wholly dependent on the seasons, and solstice rituals encouraged the sun god’s return to power. Evergreen trees in particular were seen as symbols of divinity and immortality, because they do not ‘die’ as other trees do. Thus, the return of the sun at the winter solstice was symbolized by the evergreen.*
In ancient Greece, the God Attis, the son/consort of the Mother Goddess Cybele, was believed to have died and been resurrected.** His birthday was celebrated on December 25th, and decorated evergreen trees were carried in processions in his honor.
The evergreen tree has also been long associated with gift giving- citizens of ancient Rome celebrated the Saturnalia, a week long December festival honoring the God Saturnus, by exchanging gifts attached to evergreen branches. These branches, called strenae, were part of a week long festival that was so popular, it was retained largely intact by Christians. Pope Liberius of Rome, in 354 A.D., ordered the date of December 25th be observed from that time on as the birthday of Christ, citing the Pagan festival of Saturn. (incidentally, the image of Saturnus, the Roman God of time, is the origin of the image of ‘father time,’ meaning that father time and father Christmas are closer than one might expect.) The actual birth of Jesus, according to biblical inference, would have been in the spring.
Other evergreen traditions come from pagan sources as well. In an old Norse tradition, evergreens were burned to encourage the return of the sun. A direct descendant of this practice, which is still carried out in remote parts of Europe, is the Yule*** log. (These same Norse traditions also inspired the popular notion of stealthy nocturnal gift giving by sleigh-riding elves!)
A similar custom, which is the ancestor of the modern Christmas tree, took place in Pagan Germany- the twelve ‘raunacht,’ or wild nights, were commemorated with a decorated evergreen. This custom of burning a tree was eventually replaced with trees or wooden pyramids decorated with burning candle, which are still common in many households in Europe.
As trees have long been a symbol of rebirth, the Christmas tree became a natural symbol for the resurrected God of Christianity. The first known record of a decorated tree honoring the Christian nativity was a sixteenth century description of a tree decorated with “roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil and sweets,” which was burned in the old tradition. The tree was now said to represent the tree of paradise, representing the vision of ehaven. This was the tree The idea caught on quickly, and soon Christmas trees were almost universally popular.
Strong opposition to Christmas trees by the Puritan settlers kept Christmas trees out of American territory until the nineteenth century, when German settlers popularized the tradition. Until recent years, the Christmas tree was hung upside-down, suspened fromt he ceiling.
*Not always! To the ancient Celts, the symbol of the sun god’s return was the mistletoe, whose white berries were viewed as his sperm, the promise of the return of the sacred oak.
**For more about pre-Christian resurrected gods, see: The Mysterious Dying God
***Yule is from the old Norse, Yul, meaning ‘wheel.’ A custom of rolling a burning wheel downhill at Yule time has survived into modern times in many parts of europe. A similar practice was enacted in honor of the celtic sun god Taranis.