'Tis the Season: Tracing the Origins of the Christmas Tree


| LAST UPDATE 12/08/2022

By Amie Alfaro
Royal Christmas Tree history
The Illustrated London News, Christmas Number 1848 via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas time is abundant with tradition, from listening to Christmas music to making eggnog. Some traditions are special to families, and others are more widespread. One of the most famous ones is the Christmas tree, but where did this tradition begin? Let’s find out.

There are conflicting accounts of where the tradition of bringing a tree home and decorating it has begun. Latvia and Estonia both claim that they are the home of the Christmas tree tradition. Latvia says their tradition dates back to 1510 when a merchant guilt brought a tree to the town, decorated it, and then burned it down. At the same time, Estonia argues that they have similar origins in their country. However, Carole Cusack, a professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney, told National Geographic, “it’s more likely that the Christmas tree as we know it was born in the Alsace region during the 16th century.” The Alsace region was considered German at that time but is now part of French territory. “Historical records indicate that a Christmas tree was raised in the Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539 - and that the tradition had grown so popular throughout the region that the city of Freiburg banned felling trees for Christmas in 1554.”

Christmas Tree Berlin tradition
Leonhard Lenz via Wikimedia Commons
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Why a Christmas tree, though? And why in the world did people start adorning them with lights and decorations? There is not one definite answer for why a tree came to be part of the Christmas tradition. Some believe it was inspired by the tree in the story of Adam and Eve. Others think the tree came from the practice of Christmas pyramids, decorative wooden structures meant to hold candles. However, Cusack believes that the tradition began with a different intention entirely. She said, “The Christmas tree was intended to be religiously neutral in the context of Christianity.” As for decorating the Christmas tree, many credit Martin Luther with beginning the famed tradition. As the story goes, after a walk underneath the sparkling night sky, Luther was inspired to put candles on the tree. The ritual of decorating the tree began to spread throughout Germany and then Europe as Germans resettled in different places. Then, the custom became widespread when an illustration of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their entire family next to a decorated Christmas tree was published in 1848.

Over the years, the tradition has continued to grow and change as different societies, cultures, and families incorporate their own customs and rituals. The magic of Christmas, however, remains...

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