Divine Dinner Party

Christmas Tree Meaning 101

For those who celebrate Christmas, the tree is a key tradition. But that Christmas tree meaning and where the tradition comes from is going to differ a lot depending on who you ask and what cultural context you're considering.

The main problem with tracing back the meaning of the Christmas tree? This festive holiday item is actually part of two very divergent spiritual traditions. On the one side, the origin of the Christmas tree tradition comes from classic Greek and Roman Paganism. And on the other, it comes from modern Christianity.

While what religion the modern Christmas tree really comes from is unclear (and to some unimportant-- it's a symbol for the holiday none-the-less), what is clear is the place the modern Christmas tree mostly originates from: Germany. Want to thank somebody for your shining, festive tree this year? Say thanks to the Germans!

Roman and Pagan Christmas Tree Meanings

Beautiful Christmas Tree in the Living RoomGreek and Roman Celebrations. Evergreens appear in a variety of Greek and Roman celebrations including Saturnalia (the birth of the Sun God, which took place on winter solstice). In this setting, the green of the evergreen represented the Earth's renewal as the short days of winter would begin to grow longer. Evergreens appeared again during the Kalends of January, another Roman holiday.

German Yule. The Christmas tree's meaning and tradition can also be traced back to old German celebrations. During the Yule feast of the Germans, a tree would be brought into the home. A log from that tree would be also kept until the following year as a good luck charm.

Pagan Yule Festivals. The Yule festival began late in December and ran until early January. In many regions, but especially in Germanic areas, pagan traditions influenced Christians heavily. Among country-dwelling Pagans, living trees would receive gifts of nuts, fruits and bits of bread to appease the spirits of nature (looking all the world like a rustic Christmas tree once completed). As with the Romans, the Pagans saw evergreens as a symbol of hope and renewal. The first time Yule appeared in English usage was 900 CE.

A More Modern "Tree of Paradise"

There doesn't seem to be a direct correlation between the more pagan Yule tree and the modern Christmas tree's meaning. What we do know is that around the 11th century, certain religious plays cropped up in Europe. They were called Paradise plays, depicting the ancient story of Adam and Eve. The props for this event included a fir tree decorated with apples (representing the Savior's Promise). In people's homes, the paradise tree went up on December 24th. It had no real connection to the concept of the ancient Yule tree.

Martin Luther's Influence on Christmas Tree Meaning

Some say that in the 1500's, the monk Martin Luther was the first person to give a Christmas tree meaning that directly associated with Christianity. This is more than likely a bit of revisionist history, but the story says that he brought a fir tree into the home and lit it with candles. The tall green tree pointed to the heavens and the candles represented Spirit.

Christmas Trees Travel from Germany

German immigrants brought their traditions for Christmas with them in the 1600s when they came to America (or other countries). This is well documented in various texts. We're told at this juncture the tree was adorned with apples, foil, colored paper, and sweets. Not everyone approved of such displays. Nonetheless, the tree remained part of German holiday culture, and slowly began to expand, with lights being added to the tree in the 17th century.

Christmas Tree Meanings for Modern Christians

Christmas Wreath ClipartA Christmas tree may not be an original Christian tradition. But a Christmas tree's meaning for Christians is something that has developed over generations. The evergreen became the symbol of the eternal life offered by Jesus. The lights on the tree were reminiscent of God's light and life's spirit. The star at the top quietly retells the story of the star of Bethlehem. Other meanings that modern Christians ascribe to various decorations for the Christmas tree include:

  • Red ornaments or ribbon: Jesus' sacrifice
  • Bells: ringing out of glad tidings (the "good news")
  • Bows: the ties that bind people together
  • Candy cane: shepherd's crook (to gather the lost lambs)
  • Wreaths: eternal love

What the Christmas Tree Means to YOU

In truth, the different Christmas tree meanings, origins, and intentions out there can be diverse as the different families all around the world who put up a tree each year. Each of us sees something different in the evergreen (whether real or plastic!), its twinkling lights, and its shining decorations.

What's most important to me? The happy glow the Christmas tree gives to my family and my home every day that it sits in my living room. So whether your Christmas tree is meant to represent your religion or simply adorn your living room, the origin of the Christmas tree tradition is one of the least important things about it. What really matters is how it makes you and your family feel this Christmas.

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