There is also the story that Martin Luther, in the 16th century, invented the indoor Christmas tree, lit with candles. He is said to have wanted to replicate for his family the fir trees adorned with sparkling fresh snow that he had seen one winter evening.
However, using evergreens (including palms) around the time of the winter solstice dates back to at least pharaonic Egypt. Egypt’s god Huh represented eternity and endlessness and was symbolized holding palm branches in each hand. Many tomb images show pharaohs holding palm branches. (Christian martyrs are now shown with palm branches in their hands, symbolizing the victory in Christ over death.)
In ancient Greece, the evergreen laurel crown was used to symbolize victory and was awarded at the Olympic games.
Ancient Romans celebrated the winter festival of Saturnalia in mid-December (Dec. 17 to 24) with evergreen decorations and gift exchanges. Since Saturn was a god of harvest, Romans would cut evergreen branches in honor of Saturn and hang them in their houses. The evergreen holly was also sacred to Saturn and so was used as an offering to the god during this feast.
In Britain, druids used the evergreen mistletoe as a symbol of eternal life, since it grew on oak trees which were held as sacred, and they would also hang evergreen branches in their homes to ward off evil.
Thor’s oak tree
Moving forward to the 8th century, we find St. Boniface, the apostle to Germany. The pagans there worshipped some of the Scandinavian gods, including Thor, the god of storms and thunder. Since lightning often strikes oaks, that tree was held as sacred to Thor.
Occasionally, human sacrifice took place beneath Thor’s Oak. One day, Boniface came upon this sacrificial rite. In anger, he cut down the oak. Beneath the fallen tree was found a small fir tree, which Boniface pointed to as an example of God’s love and of Christ’s resurrection.
Some of the descendants of those German tribes converted by Boniface became known as Hessians. Hessian mercenaries were recruited to serve in the American Revolution. With them, these soldiers brought their custom of winter evergreen trees, laying the groundwork for our American Christmas trees. (Due to the Puritans, who opposed the celebrations of Christmas in general, the Christmas tree tradition developed slowly until the time of Prince Albert.)
Adam and Eve
In between, there was the European medieval tradition of religious plays that depicted various Bibles stories. One that was popular on Dec. 24 (the traditional feast day of Adam and Eve) was the story of the Garden of Eden. Since apple trees were not in season in December, an evergreen tree was used on stage and apples were tied to it to represent the Paradise Tree.
Over time, baked wafers — to represent the Eucharist — were also attached to the Paradise Tree. These may have been the forerunners of the cookies and sweets that decorated later Christmas trees.
As religious theater became outlawed in the church, the plays found their way to the streets for Christmas plays and, finally, into people’s homes.
The tradition continues to evolve.
It wasn’t until 1982 that a Christmas tree was placed in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. It was Pope John Paul II’s idea, along with the Nativity scene that is now a tradition in that square.
So from ancient Rome’s Saturnalia to the Vatican, the evergreen tree in December has come full circle. As Blessed John Paul said in an Angelus message in December 2004, the Christmas tree “is an ancient tradition that exalts the value of life, for in the winter season the evergreen fir becomes a sign of undying life… The symbol thus also becomes eloquent in a typically Christian sense: it calls to mind the ‘tree of life’ (cf. Gn 2: 9), a figure of Christ, God’s supreme gift to humanity.”
Sources: the Vatican website at vatican.va; catholicculture.org; domestic-church.com; wikipedia.org; christmas-tree.com; Catholic News Service at catholicnews.com; Women for Faith and Family at wf-f.org; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”