By Susan Leigh Anthony
For the past six years I have worked at a wonderful, high-end garden center. Among the many seasonal items we sell throughout the holidays are Christmas trees and a wonderful array of cut evergreens. Surrounded by this abundance of holiday décor, I began to wonder about where the idea of bringing the greens inside the home during the winter season originated. Although I had some sense that there was a connection to pagan solstice celebrations, I really didn’t know a whole lot more. I definitely felt compelled to learn more and ended up finding that the notion of decorating with greens reaches back much further than I had realized and there are countless facts and legends associated with the traditional use of evergreens.
The Christmas trees we put up and greens we use to festoon our homes each year evolved from very ancient traditions. The ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, and Chinese used evergreens to symbolize eternal life. In particular, the Egyptians used evergreens as part of their celebration of their god, Ra.
In my research, I have learned that Jews must never incorporate any symbols of Christianity in their celebrations. However, I also read the following which forms a connection, though quite distant, between the ancient Hebrews and what we now know as the Christmas tree. The following is just one of several stories I read about Nimrod and Semiramus. “Two key figures in the origin of Christmas are Nimrod, a great grandson of Noah, and his mother and wife, Semiramis, also known as Ishtar and Isis. Nimrod, known in Egypt as Osiris, was the founder of the first world empire at Babel, later known as Babylon (Genesis 10:8-12; 11:1-9). From ancient sources such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and records unearthed by archeologists from long-ruined Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities, we can reconstruct subsequent events.
After Nimrod’s death (c. 2167 BCE), Semiramis promoted the belief that he was a god. She claimed that she saw a full-grown evergreen tree spring out of the roots of a dead tree stump, symbolizing the springing forth of new life for Nimrod. On the anniversary of his birth, she said, Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts under it. His birthday fell on the winter solstice at the end of December” (Bibletools, 2019).
Saturnalia, the ancient Roman winter festival, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture, is where we first hear of decorating the tree with pieces of metal.
“During the Middle Ages, the Paradise Tree, which symbolized man’s fall and salvation, became popular in churches and upper-class homes. Fir trees were hung with apples symbolizing man’s fall, small white wafers representing Holy Eucharist, and sweets symbolizing the sweetness of redemption” (Holiday Legends, 2003).
It is said that in the 16th century, Martin Luther was the first to add candles to Christmas trees after seeing the stars shining through the evergreen trees. He is also credited with bringing the Christmas tree indoors.
The following is a delightful tale from northern Europe. “When Christianity was spreading though Europe, three angels, Faith, Hope, and Charity, were sent to Earth to put lights on the first Christmas tree. Their mission was difficult because they had to find a tree as high as hope, as great as love, and as sweet as charity. The tree also had to contain the sign of the cross. The angels’ search came to an end when they found the fir tree of the frozen north. (If you break off a fir needle and look at the stub on the branch you will see the cross.) They lit the fir with stars to make the world’s first Christmas tree” (Holiday Legends, 2003).
Clearly, whatever the origin of the Christmas tree and greens, they have always been viewed as a symbol of hope and rebirth.
And here’s an odd fact behind the relatively new trend of hanging a Christmas tree upside down, which turns out to be a not-so-new idea after all. “Many early Christmas trees, usually firs, seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains that were hung from chandeliers/lighting hooks. This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages when Europeans did it to represent the Trinity. But now, Christmas trees are set up with the tip pointing to heaven, as some think an upside-down Christmas tree is disrespectful or sacrilegious” (The Spruce, 2019).
In England, Christmas trees became popular after the London Illustrated News published a wood engraving of the royal Christmas tree on December 23, 1848. The issue contained an engraving by Winslow Homer of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, five of their children, and a governess gathered around a decorated evergreen tree on a table full of unwrapped presents. The tree was lit with candles and was topped with an angel. The next year, royal or not, people in England began putting up Christmas trees. Other magazines started writing about the royal Christmas trees each year adding to the popularity of the tradition.
In 1850, the Christmas tree phenomenon spread to the United States when Sarah Josepha Hale, who also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” published a similar engraving in her monthly magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale “Americanized” the engraving – removing Victoria’s tiara, Albert’s royal sash and moustache, and the boxes of German biscuits from beneath the Christmas tree.
“The Godey’s engraving was one of the first widely circulated illustrations of a decorated Christmas tree in the United States, and it was soon followed by similar depictions in Harper’s and other major American publications. As a result, Christmas trees came into vogue in America as they had in England.” (Leoma Lovegrove, 2017)
And there you have it, some stories and legends to add to your own personal stories about the Christmas tree tradition.
More information can be found on these websites:
“Bible Verses about Semiramis.” Bibletools. Available at https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/770/Semiramis.htm
“The Christmas tree: From pagan origins and Christian symbolism to secular status.” ABC. Available at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-19/the-history-of-the-christmas-tree/8106078
“The Christsmas tree came to America in 1850.” Leoma Lovegrove. Available at https://www.thespruce.com/upside-down-christmas-trees-1976407
“Holiday Legends.” University of Illinois Extension. Available at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/hortihints/0312c.html
Hollaway, April. “Christmas tree has its roots in ancient tradition.” Available at https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/christmas-tree-has-its-roots-ancient-customs-001163
Susan Leigh Anthony is a longtime member of the New England Unit of HSA.She runs a garden design business named Doveflower Cottage and is a perennial buyer and expert at Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate, MA.