From Pagan Festivals to Fancy Royal Trees, Here’s the Origin of a Modern-Day Christmas

Isabel S. Wedll, Co-Editor In Chief

23 December, 2020

My own family’s Douglas Fir Christmas tree decorated with white lights, gold ornaments, and silver tinsel.
(Photo Credit: Isabel S. Wedll)

A holiday started to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ has now evolved into a cultural phenomenon and with it comes many traditions.

Christmas time is approaching, and as celebrators decorate their homes it is rarely questioned where these certain traditions originated. Why do they put up Christmas trees? Why are they decorated fancifully? What other winter celebrations have influenced Christmas? The list of questions is endless, but many of them have answers. So, let’s start from the beginning.

The answer for many ancient traditions is the winter solstice. With the anticipation of the days becoming longer and the cold somewhat lifting, winter solstice celebrations were a way for people to feast and bask in merriment; especially with the shortest day of the year approaching. Specifically, the Romans celebrated at the Feast of Saturnalia. This week-long celebration was to honor the god Saturn and was known for feasting and gift-giving.

“With Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, many of these customs were later absorbed into Christmas celebrations,” the HuffPost Religion Editors wrote for the winter solstice in 2016. The Romans were not the only ancient people partaking in winter celebrations.

Centuries later in Scandinavia, the Norse people celebrated the Yule; which took place from the winter solstice through January. With the days becoming longer, the Norse looked for a way to symbolize this yearly occurrence. 

“In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire,” Editors noted in the “History of Christmas”. “The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days.”

Throughout Europe, especially in the north, December was a month of celebrations. Livestock was slaughtered, so people did not have to feed them throughout the winter. Wines and beer were finally fermented. Leading to an abundance of meat and booze, thus very merry drunken celebrations. 

All these mentions of feasting, the abundance of alcohol, warm-open fires, and gift-giving sounds a lot like a modern-day family Christmas. (Obviously not this year. Please practice social distancing this Christmas.) There’s even a crazier similarity to an old pagan-German tradition.

“Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish,” Editors stated. Oden observing and deciding who shall do well/shall not is definitely where Santa Clause got his idea for the naughty and nice list. Without the perishing (*cough cough death by Oden cough cough*) of course. 

A staple for many in their celebrations is getting a Christmas tree and decorating it to the nines. Cheerful green plants have been used for centuries to symbolize well being during the winter time. 

The ancient Egyptians, “[filled] their homes with green palm rushes, which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death,” the Editors wrote in the “History of Christmas Trees”

Even the Druids (Celtic priests), “also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life,” the Editors said. Evergreens could also be found throughout Scandinavia and were used in Viking celebrations to honor the sun god, Balder. But the Christmas trees we love and adore did not really appear until 16th century Germany. Christian Germans would bring pine/fir trees into their homes and decorate them with dried fruits, Marzipan cookies, nuts, and later candles. The addition of candles is credited towards Martin Luther. 

He was, “walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles,” the Editors noted. 

These festive trees were not seen in the United States until German settlers arrived. At first they were perceived as Pagan symbols by Puritans in power. Later, people were fined for hanging decorations to celebrate Christmas, but “that stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy,” the Editors indicated. 

These symbolic and festive trees were still not entirely popular until the British Royal Family started the trend in the 19th century. 

“Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree,” the Editors penned. Of course, this spark of royal approval made Christmas trees fashionable and the Brits followed in her footsteps. The voguish trees trickled their way down to high society on the East Coast of the U.S., making their way into lavish homes. 

As the 1890s rolled in “[Christmas] ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S.” the Editors said. Suddenly, the 20th century rang in and these merry trees were decorated with handmade ornaments, dyed strands of popcorn, and eventually lights. 

Nowadays, a smorgasbord of ornaments, lights, tinsels, fake trees, and so many other options can be found anywhere to decorate a Christmas tree. Whether a person is going out cutting their own tree down, buying one from their local store/lot, and breaking out the fake one from the box it’s an exciting time. So, make your Pinterest boards, or collages of magazine clippings and get to decorating a tree for the Yule or Christmas. Take this time to relish in the feasts, family time, and break from school to enjoy this Yuletide holiday. Happy Holidays! Social-distance! Partake in some Paganism or Christianity!