One of the most popular and cherished Christmas customs is the "Christmas Tree", earlier known as the "Christ Tree".  It is decorated with lights and ornaments, and set upright in houses.  It is considered a symbol and reminder of salvation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.[1] 


In 1882, the world's first electrically lighted Christmas tree was decorated in the New York City home of Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison. Today, it is estimated that more than 72 million trees are trimmed each Christmas season, 35 million of which are real trees and 37 million artificial. 

But when, where, and how did this custom begin? What is the origin of the Christmas tree? 


Ancient Celebrations: 

Trees have played an important role from ancient times in pagan religions, and were even worshipped.  In pagan mythology, the evergreen tree was a symbol of the essence of life. 


Norsemen (ancient Scandinavians), Celts (early people of British Isles) and Saxons used trees to ward off witches, evil spirits, and ghosts.  Yggdrasil was the Great Tree of Life in the Norse mythology.  In the North European countries, many would lose family members in the severe and harsh winters.  All trees would die except the fir tree.  It therefore represented life.  As a result many people placed the fir tree in their homes as a symbol of life, with the hope that having it inside their homes would bring their families life, health and wealth. 

In Northern Europe, the winter festivities were considered to be a Feast of the Dead, focusing on the Norse god, Odin, and his night riders, with ceremonies full of spirits and devils. One particular solstice festival was "Jol" (Yule), celebrated throughout Northern Europe in honor of Jolnir, another name for Odin.  Since Odin was the god of intoxicating drink and ecstasy, as well as the god of death, Yule customs varied greatly from region to region. 


In the earlier pagan customs, an evergreen tree was decorated in honor of their god Adonis, who after being slain was brought to life by the serpent Aesculapius[2].  The representation of the slain Adonis was a dead stump of a tree.  In Babylon, the evergreen tree came to represent the rebirth or reincarnation of Nimrod as his new son (Sun), Tammuz.  In Egypt this god was worshiped in a palm tree as Baal-Tamar.  In Rome the fir tree was worshiped as the same new-born god, named Baal-Berith, who was restored to life by the same serpent.  In Mesopotamia (area between Tigris and Euphrates), the winter solstice had been the climax of a 12 day festival (Saturnalia) for centuries. This would traditionally be the night when there was a mock battle between the mythical sun king and the forces of darkness, where good would win and trees would be decorated then burned in honor.  Ancient Greeks celebrated Saturnalia, when houses were adorned with evergreen tree boughs etc.


Heathen people in the land of Canaan (vaguely the present day Palestine area) worshiped tree, calling it the Asherah – a tree with its branches cut off and carved into a phallic symbol. The same Yule Log was used for all 12 days to keep the fire lit or to re-light it. It was the shadow and type of a burning lust of a man to fuel the fires of sexual potency to reproduce fertility.  The lit Yule Log was also regarded as a phallic symbol in fertility worship, representing a good omen for heightened sexuality for the coming year (fir trees being considered the very spirit of fertility since they were constantly green and undying). 



Christian Celebration:

Historically, the custom of decorating Christmas Tree can only be traced as far back as the 16th century, and there are various legends concerning its origin.  Some think that Martin Luther introduced the Christmas tree.  It is said that while coming home one dark winter's night near Christmas, he was struck with the beauty of the starlight shining through the branches of a small fir tree outside his home. He duplicated the starlight by using candles attached to the branches of his indoor Christmas tree.  Some reports attribute the origin of Christmas tree is to Wilfred of Crediton, an 8th Century missionary who worked to save souls in pagan Germany. It is said that he felled an oak which was sacred to Odin and used for human sacrifice. A small fir tree sprang from the ground nearby and this pure plant was declared by Wilfred to be the emblem of the New Faith. 

However, there is general scholarly consensus that the Christmas tree originated in Germany.  The earliest record of an evergreen tree being used and decorated (but without lights) for Christmas dates 1521 in the German region of Alsace.  It was probably derived from the so-called "paradise tree" that symbolized the Garden of Eden portrayed in German mystery plays in the 16th century. 


  As far as we know, the first Christmas trees did not have lights; the first mention of lights (candles) on a Christmas tree is in the 17th century; these trees were decorated with paper roses, apples, Communion wafers, gold, foil, sweets, and dolls. The Christmas Tree slowly grew in popularity and use from the mid-seventeenth century onward.  However, it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the use of the Christmas tree grew considerably. 

In America, the Christmas tree was probably first used about 1700 when the first wave of German immigration settled in western Pennsylvania.  The Christmas tree was first introduced into France in 1837 when Princess Helen of Mecklenburg brought it to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. The year 1841 was a significant year in the Christmas celebration in England. Prince Albert, the German husband of British Queen Victoria, brought the first Christmas tree in England to the royal castle of Windsor. And just a year later, America too was to discover the Christmas tree.  In 1842, Dr. Charles Frederick Minnegerode, professor of Greek at the College of William and Mary, brought the first Christmas tree to Williamsburg, Virginia, America.


For many years the Christian church had banned the use of evergreens in the Christmas celebrations because of their history with paganism.


In the Old Testament, Jeremiah warned the people who decorated the trees:


Hear ye the word which the Lord speaks unto you, O house of Israel: thus says the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.  For the customs of the people are vain: for one cuts a tree out of forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.  They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not(Jeremiah 10:1-4).



Another custom in the Christmas celebration among some Christian groups is that on the Eve of Christmas, i.e., when the sun goes down and darkness appears on 24th of December, the entire family would pull in a large central trunk of a tree (– the Yule log) into the house; it would then be placed in the fireplace and burnt.

Long before the advent of Christianity, the heathen Anglo-Saxons called the 25th of December "Yule day".  "Yule" is a Chaldean (ancient Babylonian) word meaning "infant."  So the "Yule day" means "infant day" or "child's day".  


The night before "Yule day" was called "Mother night".  This corresponds to the "Christmas Eve" of today.  In the Babylonian mythology, Nimrod's wife, Semiramis, was the inspiration for "Mother night".  "Child's day" was the supposed birthday of her son Tammuz. the log placed in the fireplace represented the dead Nimrod, and the tree which appeared the next morning was Nimrod alive again – reincarnated in his new son (the sun-god), Tammuz. 


              In Scandinavia, the pagan sex-and-fertility god, Jule, was honored in a twelve-day celebration in December.  A large, single log was kept with a fire against it for twelve days, and each day for twelve days a different sacrifice was offered. This corresponds to twelve days period between Christmas and Epiphany.  According to some, Yule refers to wheel, and the Yule day to the day of the wheel, or revolution of the sun. On this annual celebration of the birth of the sun it was usual for people to deck their temples and houses with the first-fruits of the earth, and to make it an occasion for offering glory to their god, Thor – the god of thunder, weather, and crops.  The ancient Celts used the Yule log as a sacred log in their religious festivals during the winter solstice; the fire provided promises of good luck and long life. People in Spain believed the log would drive away evil spirits. 

In Yugoslavia, the Yule Log was cut just before dawn on Christmas Eve and carried into the house at twilight. The wood itself was decorated with flowers, colored silks and gold, and then doused with wine and an offering of grain. In an area of France known as Provencal, families would go together to cut the Yule Log, singing as they went along. These songs asked for blessings to be bestowed upon their crops and their flocks. The people of Provencal called their Yule Log the "trefoire" and, with great ceremony, they carried the log around the house three times and christened it with wine before it was set afire.


             Only in 1577 did it become a public ceremony in England and spread through Europe. The log became superstitious among some.  It would not be bought, but be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve by the family using it.  They said it must take one match to light it or your house would have a bad spell. Others say you must light the fire with coals and ashes from the year before to ensure safety in the house.  Some traditions were that people would dress the log in flowers and needles.  Then it became the evergreen tree, taken into the house and decorated.


The most common "Yule log" today is the Yule Log cake which is made to look like a traditional log.    


3.     CANDLES


Another custom in the celebrations is to light a large candle on Christmas Eve, called the "Christmas light", symbolizing Christ who is the light of the world. 


This tradition started sometime in the Middle Ages.  In earlier days a candle was burnt at the same time as the Yule log. 


In western Germany, many smaller candles were set upon a wooden pyramid and lit. Besides the candles, other objects such as glass balls, tinsel, and the "star of Bethlehem" were placed on its top.


 The Christmas candles which are kept burning from early dawn to the close of Christmas day are believed to ward off evil during the ensuing year. The tiny colored candles on the Christmas tree also have the same meaning, or probably these lights are simply a commercial idea invented and marketed by Edward Johnson in 1882 with his friend Thomas Edison. Then there were egg size globes of red, white and blue, and don't really have any Christian significance.




The significance of Santa Clause is also notable in the Christmas celebration – the best-loved of all Christmas gift-givers. According to popular belief, Santa Clause brings gifts and toys to all on this very day.

Santa Claus or "Father Christmas" is a plump white-bearded and red-suited jolly old man who delivers presents to good children at Christmas time.  The term, Santa, is another spelling for saint, and Claus was a Dutch pronunciation of the last part of his name, Cholas. Over the years, these interwoven legends of "Santa Cholas" were handed down from one European generation to another.  Santa Claus is a corruption of the Dutch Sinter Klaas, or Sint Nikolaas.  Santa Claus was also known as "Kriss Kringle," a corruption of the German "Christ Kindl" – Christ Child.  Most cultures believe Santa Claus to be a benevolent, fat and jolly character, often elvish in origin.

In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick," which was later published as "The Night Before Christmas."  Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit. The red suit comes from the fact that Catholic bishops and cardinals in Italy wear red.  Dutch immigrants to America brought their custom of celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, and especially on St. Nicholas eve, when gifts were given to children. British settlers to America later incorporated the tradition as part of their Christmas Eve celebration. 

It is reported that the historical Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (a coastal town of Lycia, now in Turkey), who was orphaned in his youth by the sudden death of his wealthy Christian parents, but eventually rose to become bishop. He was legendary for his generosity and giving of gifts, especially to children.  He was not heavyset or overbearing, but rather a thin, austere man, who loved children.  As the story goes, Saint Nicholas once helped a man's daughter with her dowry by anonymously dropping a bag of gold down the chimney. After helping the man's second and third daughters in similar manner, he was caught in the act.  In recognition of his generosity, the practice of dropping gifts down the chimney was established.  With the passing of time, St. Nicholas became Santa Claus – an important figure for the Christians.


Some Christians believe that the Santa Claus concept came from the pagan Egyptian god, Bes, a rotund, gnome-like personage who was the patron of little children.  Bes was said to live at the North Pole, working year-round to produce toys for children who had been good and obedient to their parents.  The association of Santa Claus with snow, reindeer, and the North Pole suggests Scandinavian or Norse traditions of the Yuletide season.

Some are of the opinion that the name Santa Claus originated way back in the time of Nimrod of Babylon.  In Babylonia also the stag (reindeer) was a symbol of the mighty one, Nimrod. The symbolism of antlers worn on the head of a noble leader would demonstrate his prowess as a hunter, and thereby, influence people to follow him.  In some ancient drawings, he is shown wearing a long beard, carrying a spotted fawn or deer, and holding a fir tree in his hand (all symbols now employed in one way or another with Christmas and Santa Claus today).


Regardless of which origin of the name Santa Claus one chooses to believe, the concept of Santa Claus on a whole has been a subject of criticism in some Christian quarters. They regard him a counterfeit persona, becoming the undisputed spirit, symbol, and centerpiece of Christmas, which diverts attention away from the real central figure of Christmas – Christ.  To tell children that Santa Claus is a man that lives in the north pole, rides a sled pulled by reindeer (one of which is called Rudolph who is known for his red nose), and that Santa is responsible for bringing all the presents that are received on Christmas day, being untrue. They say that when parents lie to their children about Santa Claus, they are taking the attention of their children away from God and causing them to focus on a fat man in a red suit with god-like qualities. All of this teaches the child to believe that, just like Santa, God can be pleased with "good works," done in order to earn His favor. Also, they teach that no matter how bad the child has been, he will still be rewarded by God – just as Santa never failed to bring gifts. Even in homes of professing Christians, Santa Claus seems to have displaced Jesus in the awareness and affections of children.





Christmas is incomplete to many unless it involves “kissing under the mistletoe.” 

It is believed that the blood-red berries symbolize Christ's bleeding death and his crown of thorns.   The mistletoe symbolized the reconciliation between God and man. And since a ‘kiss’ is the well known symbol of reconciliation, that is how "kissing under the mistletoe" became a custom – both were tokens of reconciliation.  The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins. Instead, church fathers suggested the use of holly as an appropriate substitute for Christmas greenery. The Encyclopedia Americana states, “The holly, the mistletoe, the Yule log…are relics of pre-Christian time.”  

Witches and other pagans regarded the red holly as a symbol of the menstrual blood of the queen of heaven, also known as Diana. The holly wood was used by witches to make wands. The custom of hanging Holly and Ivy was to pay homage to the spirits that would bring life and fertility into the home. The red berries on the holly was for man’s sexuality (the hanging of round balls on a tree represented the same), the ivy for a woman around him. The green leaves represented the man’s potency and the berries the life. In combination with the female ivy, it promised new life and fertility to the entire household for the year to come. 

Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids (a cult of pagan Celtic priests who were considered magicians and wizards) used mistletoe (an evergreen plant that is parasitic upon other trees) to celebrate the coming of winter. They would gather this and used it to decorate their homes. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion.

Druids considered mistletoe to be a divine branch that had dropped from heaven and grew upon a tree on earth (– compare with the Christian concept concerning Christ, "the Man the Branch," coming from heaven). The mistletoe, being a sacred plant and a symbol of fertility, was also believed to contain certain magical powers, having been brought to earth from heaven by a mistle thrush carrying it in its toes (hence the name). It was once known as the "plant of peace," and in ancient Scandinavia, enemies were reconciled under it (yet another reason why people came to "kiss under the mistletoe"). It was supposed to bring "good luck" and fertility, and even to protect from witchcraft the house in which it hung.

The white berries of mistletoe were believed by pagans to represent droplets of the semen of the sun god. Both holly and mistletoe were hung in doorways of temples and homes to invoke powers of fertility in those who stood beneath and kissed, causing the spirits of the god and goddess to enter them.  If a husband and wife wanted a child, they would go under it and it was supposed to bring holiness and fertility.  These customs transcended the borders of Rome and Germany to the far reaches of the known world.  Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably derived from this belief.    


Christmas Celebrations  


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[1] As one legend goes, it was a fir tree that grew as the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and when Eve plucked its fruit, the foliage and flowers shrank to nothing but needles.  Only on the night of the Nativity would the fir tree bloom again.

[2]  Aesculapius:  Greco-Roman god of medicine.  The medical symbol depicts the serpent even today.