Why do we put up trees at Christmas? This holiday tradition has a surprising past.

When you think about it, Christmas trees are a strange tradition. Every December, people all over the world go to the nearest forest, cut down a tree, drag it into their homes, decorate it with lights, ornaments, and tinsel, and then drag it to the curb in January.

But evergreen boughs have been an important part of pagan winter solstice celebrations for a very long time. Carole Cusack, a professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney, writes in an email that evergreens have been a part of midwinter celebrations since ancient times. They show that life and light have won over death and darkness.

It’s hard to say when and where these pagan traditions turned into the tradition we know today. For example, several countries claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree, and different myths try to explain what it all means. But even though Christmas trees are found all over the world, they come from places with lots of evergreen forests, especially in northern Europe. Here’s a look at how the Christmas tree became a modern symbol and led to the start of new traditions.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree stands lit in New York. The 75-foot tall Norway spruce is lit by more than 50,000 LED lights. PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE BONDAREFF, AP IMAGES FOR TISHMAN SPEYER/XINHUA/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

In Northern Europe, there are different claims.

Latvia and Estonia both say that the first Christmas tree was grown in their countries. Latvia’s Christmas tree customs go back to 1510 when a group of merchants called the House of the Black Heads carried a decorated tree through the city and burned it down. In response to those claims, Estonia said it has proof that the same guild held a similar festival in 1441 in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city.

A holiday market in Estonia’s capital Tallinn features a large Christmas tree. Both Latvia and Estonia claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID MIN, GETTY IMAGES
A Christmas tree towers outside St. Peter’s church in Riga, Latvia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IKARS KUBLINS, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Both claims have been questioned by historians. In 2016, Gustavs Strange of the National Library of Latvia in Riga told the New York Times that the guild’s celebrations probably had nothing to do with Christmas. But these two countries still have to compete over who has the best Christmas tree. In Riga’s Town Hall Square, a plaque marks where the first Christmas tree was put up.

The Christmas tree came from Germany.

Cusack says it’s more likely that the Christmas tree we know today came from the Alsace region in France in the 1600s. At the time, the area was part of Germany, but it is now part of France. Historical records show that a Christmas tree was put up in the Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539. The tradition became so popular in the area that in 1554, Freiburg banned people from cutting down trees for Christmas.

Folklore gives many different ideas about what the tree means. Some people think it was based on the paradise tree, a symbol of the Garden of Eden in a Middle Ages play about Adam and Eve. Some people think the Christmas tree came from Christmas pyramids, wooden structures with evergreen branches and religious figures on them. She says, “The Christmas tree was meant to be religiously neutral in the context of Christianity.”

Still, German families kept doing it, which changed over time until it became what it is today. Cusack says that Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer, is often given credit for being the first to put lights on a Christmas tree. He did this with candles instead of electric lights, which weren’t invented until 1882. After walking through a forest at night while the stars were shining. When Germans moved to other countries, they brought these customs with them. Cusack says that by the 1800s, Christmas trees could be found all over Europe.

In the U.K., trees are becoming popular.

Queen Charlotte, the princess of a German duchy and married King George III in the middle of the 18th century, is thought to have brought the first Christmas tree into the royal household. But another British queen made Christmas trees what they are today: a symbol of the holiday season.

The National Christmas Tree is lit on the Ellipse south of the White House in Washington, DC.
PHOTOGRAPH BY YASIN OZTURK, ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

The National Christmas Tree in Washington, DC, is south of the White House.
In Washington, DC, the National Christmas Tree is lit up on the Ellipse, which is south of the White House.

This picture caught the attention of royal watchers all over the world. Queen Victoria was a trendsetter in her time, so the custom spread across the globe.

Now, the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square is the most well-known one in London. This tree has a long and interesting history around the world. In 1947, Norway began giving the U.K. As a thank-you for helping Norway when its government fled to the U.K. during World War II, Norway sends the U.K. a Christmas tree every year. After the Nazis came to power.

In the U.S., there are events where people light up trees.

When Hessian troops joined the British to fight in the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s, they may have brought the Christmas tree tradition with them. In the years that followed, German immigrants also brought the tradition to the U.S., and historian Penne Restad says that they “became a point of fascination for other Americans” over time.

After 1850, when Philadelphia’s Godey’s Lady’s Book reprinted the royal family’s Christmas scene from the Illustrated London News, more and more American families got Christmas trees. But the magazine changed a few things. For example, they took off Victoria’s crown and Albert’s royal sash to make them look like an American family.

Today, two of the most famous U.S. Putting up Christmas trees is a tradition many people follow to start the holiday season. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge oversaw the lighting of the first National Christmas Tree. Ten years later, in 1933, New York City lit the first Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, which has since become a must-see for tourists and New Yorkers alike every holiday season. Since then, both trees have been lit up yearly, except for a few years in the 1940s when they weren’t because of World War II rules.

Russia has trees for the New Year.

Russia has had Christmas trees for a long time. But the brightly lit trees in the Cathedral Square of the Kremlin every December are not for Christmas. These are New Year’s trees or yolka. They became a tradition after the Russian Revolution when Christmas trees were banned.

In the 1920s, when the Soviet government had just taken power, it started a campaign against religion. It started with things like Christmas that it thought were “bourgeois.” Since Christmas trees and other traditions were banned, the secular government started to push New Year’s instead.

Syntagma Square features a ship decorated with lights at Christmas time in Athens, Greece.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WASSILIS ASWESTOPOULOS, NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

But by 1935, the Soviet government changed its mind about the tree. Senior Soviet official Pavel Postyshev wrote in a newspaper that families should celebrate New Year’s Day with “fir trees sparkling with multicoloured lights.” When the Soviet Union fell apart in the 1990s, Christmas came back to Russia. Still, the New Year’s tree has stayed a tradition ever since.

The scrap metal Christmas tree in Antarctica

Even though there are no trees at the South Pole, there are still some Christmas tree traditions. In 1946, people on the crew of a U.S. Antarctica-bound Navy expedition spent Christmas at sea by tying a spruce tree from Canada to their mast. After more than fifty years, researchers at the U.S. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station made a Christmas tree from scrap metal and made ornaments for it. The scrap-metal tree was part of the Christmas celebrations at the Antarctic research station for a short time, with ironworkers adding new decorations each year. However, the National Science Foundation says that the scrap-metal tree is no longer a part of the celebrations.

The Greek Christmas boats

People used to decorate Christmas boats instead of trees in Greece to honour St. Nicholas, the country’s patron saint and the sailors’ protector. Families would put small wooden boats inside their homes to show how happy they were to see their sailors come home. Lighted boats would also take pride of place in the public squares of cities like Thessaloniki.

In modern times, the Christmas tree has become more important than the Christmas boat. But you can still see these boats in some island towns.

Taking down trees in Scandinavia

Since the 1600s, Scandinavian families have set aside a feast day to take candy from their Christmas trees and then throw them away. Saint Knut’s Day is on January 13. It is named after King Canute, king in the 11th century. The holiday is mostly celebrated in Sweden, which is seen as the last day of Christmas. In other countries, Christmas lasts for 12 days.

For St. Knut’s Day, people hang cookies and other treats for kids to eat on their Christmas trees. When a family is done taking the decorations off the tree, they sing as they ceremoniously throw it out the door. (In Norway, the tree is cut up and put in the fireplace.)

Swedes have started taking down their Christmas decorations earlier, which has made St. Knut’s Day traditions less common. However, Swedish folklorist Bengt Af Klintberg told the T.T. news agency in 2015 that the tradition will live on in the country’s traditional poems and rhymes.

Tió de Nadal, a Christmas tradition in Catalonia, waits on sale at a Christmas market in Barcelona, Spain.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CISCO PELAY, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

NPR says that this strange custom may have come from a pagan ritual in which people lit tree trunks on fire to stay warm in the winter. But why does the log have to crap out its treasures? Cusack says this may have something to do with the Caganer, a figure of a defecating peasant in Catalan Nativity scenes. The Caganer represents “the world turned upside down when the poor or powerless are celebrated, and the powerful are brought down,” Cusack says. “The idea is that the poop feeds the earth, and the caganer is a good example of a good citizen.”

But the real story behind this Catalan tradition is still a mystery. Like other Christmas tree stories, it may be lost to history.

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