Christmas : Importance and Significance of the Christmas Tree
Christmas : Importance and Significance of the Christmas Tree
Decorating the Christmas Tree is one of the most enjoyable traditions associated with Christmas and both the setting up and taking down of the tree have their specific dates: 23 December (the first Day of Christmas) or 24 December (Christmas Eve), respectively 5 January (Twelfth Night).
Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to come. The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.
Nobody is really sure when Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees. It probably began about 1000 years ago in Northern Europe. Many early Christmas Trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains (hung from chandeliers/lighting hooks).
Other early Christmas Trees, across many parts of northern Europe, were cherry or hawthorn plants (or a branch of the plant) that were put into pots and brought inside so they would hopefully flower at Christmas time. If you couldn’t afford a real plant, people made pyramids of woods and they were decorated to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles. Sometimes they were carried around from house to house, rather than being displayed in a home.
However, starting year 700, the pagan tree was replaced by a fir tree which was considered a symbol of Christianity. Responsible for this change was Saint Boniface, who converted the Germans to Christianity.
During the 11th century, the tree became a symbol of the tree of Paradise, and people started decorating it with red apples. Four centuries later, around the year 1500, Martin Luther brought a tree indoor, and decorated it with candles in honor of Christ’s birth, and starting that moment, people began bringing the trees indoor and decorating them with lights and apples. Still, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was established in the 18th century, being more common in France, Austria and Germany.
Meaning of the Decorations
Although the Christmas tree is typically decorated in red and white, the coloring can vary greatly depending on taste and traditions. Each color and each decoration is thought to have a special significance, and lots of people choose their ornaments based on the legends out there.
Getting familiar with these symbols is a great way to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas, and to understand what’s actually celebrated on December 25.
What does ‘Tree’ mean?
Among Christians, the green tree was thought to symbolize eternal life in Christ, while the red color of apples and of holly were considered symbols of the blood of Jesus. The Holly then started being attached to the tree’s branches, this shrub representing immortality and being a symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross.
Candles continued being used as decorations for the tree, symbolizing Christ as the Light of the World. Although in time the candles were replaced by electric lights, the significance remained the same. However, in Ireland, candles have a slightly different story: during the Penal Times, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas, so catholic priests, expelled from the country, had to travel in secret during night time and celebrate Mass in people’s homes. Those who were willing to host the priests would place candles in the windows and leave the doors unlocked, so that priests could come in, pray with them and spend the night in a secure place.
Star on the top
The star placed on the top of the tree represents the star that guided the Wise Men to Jesus Child in Bethlehem. Lots of people prefer decorating the tree with an angel instead of a star, this being a symbol of the angel who announced Christ’s birth.
The bells attached to the branches of the Christmas tree represent the Joy of this day, but also Jesus as the High Priest. Jewish priests used to wear a blue robe under the ephod, and golden bells were attached to the hem of this robe.
Initially, the apples used for decorating the Christmas tree represented the forbidden fruits, but later the fruits offered for Christmas received the significance of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. The baubles are a lighter replacement for apples, but their meaning is pretty much the same, and the Nativity Scene or Manger Scene represents the scene of Jesus’ birth.
The candy cane shaped like a shepherd’s crook symbolizes the Good Shepherd, and the poinsettia flowers, through their shape, remind of the star of Bethlehem. The wreath symbolizes true love, which never ceases, while the gingerbread man is a symbol of God’s creation – the gingerbread man does not create himself, it’s created, and its typical color reminds of the color of earth.
Tinsel and the Spider Web
Tinsel was also created in Germany, were it was originally made from thin strips of beaten silver. But when plastic/man made tinsel was invented, it became very popular as it was much cheaper than real silver and also lighter to go on the tree!
These tales seem to have started in Eastern Germany or Ukraine but are also told in parts of Finland and Scandinavia. The stories are now also popular in other countries such as the USA; although I live in the UK and most people in my country have never heard of the story/legend!
All the versions of the story involve a poor family who can’t afford to decorate a Tree for Christmas (in some versions the tree grew from a pine cone in their house, in others the family have bought a tree into the house). When the children go to sleep on Christmas Eve a spider covers the tree in cobwebs. Then on Christmas morning the cobwebs are magically turned into silver and gold strands which decorate the tree!
Some versions of the story say that it’s the light of the sun which changed the cobwebs into silver and gold but other versions say it’s St Nicholas / Santa Claus / Father Christmas / das Christkind which made the magic happen.
In parts of Germany, Poland, and Ukraine it’s meant to be good luck to find a spider or a spider’s web on your Christmas Tree. Spider’s web Christmas Tree decorations are also popular in Ukraine. They’re called ‘pavuchky’ (which means ‘little spider’) and the decorations are normally made of paper and silver wire. You might even put an artificial spider’s web on your tree!
Although different traditions and decorations have been created around the world and in lots of houses this season is associated more with Santa and presents, the meaning of Christmas shouldn’t be lost. Besides being a time of great joy, it’s also the day when Christ’s birth is celebrated.