Surprisingly, the ritual of the “Christmas” tree far pre-dates the era of Christ. In fact, forms of Christmas trees have decorated dwellings for many thousands of years, and continue to do so in their current form.
The Christmas Tree: Linked to The Winter Festival
Anthropologically speaking, the Christmas Tree may be the most important decorative object in the ritual celebration of the main winter festival celebrated by the Western European Tribes and associated cultures. This festival is, in theory, associated with the monotheistic cult of Jesus but, in actual fact, is embraced by anybody who enjoys libations, gifts and all-round jollity.
For those who may not be familiar with this ‘Christmas’ ritual, it consists of decorating a tree of the evergreen variety with gaudy multicoloured lights, baubles and shiny sparkly garlands known as tinsel.
The custom has deep roots – unlike the trees themselves, which are often pulled out of the ground or chopped down unceremoniously to be stuck on a wooden pedestal inside the natives’ dwellings, or are even made of plastic.
‘Christmas Tree’ Has Ancient Roots
European tribes have been using evergreens as a symbols of rebirth since their forebears in the Iron Age. Even earlier, the ancient Egyptians used (green) palm branches to decorate their homes in honour of the Sun God Ra during the solstice. This African custom echoed the Roman Saturnalia, which were a celebration of agriculture, land fertility, and the life-giving role of the sun. Revellers wore evergreen boughs and also oak branches and hung them everywhere as decorations. Elsewhere in Eurasia the Celts, who could always be relied upon to throw a good party, also used evergreens as a symbol of the rebirth of the sun king during the winter solstice in December.
The custom survived, until it became widespread amongst Christians in Germany thanks to St Boniface in the 6th century. Irate with local Pagans who worshipped a big oak tree, he hacked it down. Suddenly, according to legend, a fir sapling sprang up, and Boniface took this as a sign of Divine intervention – he knew when to bow out gracefully! From then on German Christians embraced the ancient pagan custom, and made it theirs; decorating trees with nuts, berries and coloured paper. Later, Martin Luther added candles. Ra’s Palms of life had finally evolved into the syncretic Christmas Tree, combining aspects of many contradictory traditions.
A Syncretic Tradition
Queen Victoria, who had strong German connections through her beloved Albert, adopted all Christmas customs from that particular European tribe, including the tree, and added even more colourful embellishments. Decorated Christmas trees quickly became a cherished part of Anglo -Saxon culture. The Victorians also made popular another great tradition associated with the tree: The gifts.
Trees became the focus of Christmas day when gifts were placed under them, allegedly by an elderly overweight male fairy dressed in red and sporting a huge white beard and bobbled hat; known in the English language as Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Scholars contend that it is clan leaders (mostly mums and dads) who actually sneak out in the night and do this, and the debate rages on to this day.
Holiday Transitions: The Liminal Tree
Anthropologist Victor Turner contends that ritual is the means by which events and people move through the three stages of becoming part of the social fabric: From being outside of society, to liminal (in between) and eventually to being accepted in a new form or status.
In this way, the tree acts as a vehicle for renewal. It starts off like a normal unassuming plant and eventually, for the duration of the festival, it becomes a glamorous, sparkling superstar. Then once the tinsel and glitter come off, it is disposed of and essentially returned to the earth.
The Christmas Tree ushers in the new while seeing off the old. Its purpose is to remind of the seed of light and new life at the deepest point of winter in the north-western hemisphere. Presents come from the shop, into the house, and into the arms of children – eventually, however, they will all make it to landfill…. Perhaps this symbolic role inspired the famous Anglo-Saxon idiom: “Make like a tree, and leave.“