Christmas Tree – a Pagan Survival

The decorating of a tree is a common folk custom, and widespread in tribal and shamanic cultures.  Pliny noted how ‘barbarian people’, unlike the Romans, could not understand how the gods could be locked up in temples and portrayed with human faces, but instead dedicated clearings and groves to the gods. While the life span of humankind is short, trees can live for many centuries. When all else fades in winter evergreens remain changeless in a changing world, strong enough to resist the death time. Romans hung evergreens around their houses during the Saturnalia (the winter solstice festival). Ancient Egyptians brought in palm branches on the winter solstice to symbolize the sun god Ra’s victory over death. In the fourth century CE, the Christian Emperor Theodosius forbade Pagan rituals, particularly decorating trees:

If someone burns incense in front of man-made idols, they are damned; or if such a person worships idolatrous images by decorating a tree with ribbons, or if he sets up an altar outside – he is guilty of blasphemy and sacrilege.”

The decorating of trees is specifically forbidden in the Bible, and modern American fundamentalist Christians condemn the use of Christmas trees citing Jeremiah 10: 2-4:

Thus says the Lord, Do not learn the way of the nations, And do not be terrified by the signs of the heavens Although the nations are terrified by them; For the customs of the peoples are delusion; Because it is wood cut from the forest, The work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. They decorate it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers so that it will not totter.” 

However, as with so many other Pagan customs, the decorating of trees at the winter solstice was so popular, that the Christians were forced to reinvent it. Christian convention credits Saint Boniface with the creation of the Christmas tree when he chopped down the sacred oak of Thor at Geismar. Another story is that Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was so impressed by a sparkling frosty forest scene that he allegedly cut down a small fir tree, took it home, and decorated it with lighted candles.

Miracle plays depicting biblical stories were performed in medieval times and one of the most popular featured Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The only prop would be an evergreen tree (the Paradise Tree) to which was affixed a red apple. Most commonly the Paradise Play was performed on December 24because this was the feast day of Adam and Eve on the old Christian calendar. It was forbidden by the Church in the fifteenth century.

The first known references to a fir tree decorated specifically for Christmas was in Latvia around 1510. Evergreen trees decorated with artificial roses were burned in the squares of Riga and Reval by local guilds as an entertainment on Christmas Eve. By 1531 there was a thriving market for Christmas trees in Strasbourg.  The red apples of the Adam and Eve tree were retained, along with figures of Adam, Eve and the serpent. In some areas, the trees were hung upside down from the ceiling. No one seems to know why. A description of Christmas trees in Strasbourg in 1604 tells us:

On Christmas they put fir trees in the rooms at Strasbourg, they hang red roses cut from many-coloured paper, apples, offerings, gold tinsel, sugar. It is the custom to make a four corned frame around it”. [1]

In Britain, the Christmas tree was popularised by Prince Albert who brought the tradition over from Germany. Newspaper illustrations in 1848 showed the royal family with a Christmas tree decorated with glass-blown ornaments, candles and ribbons in Windsor Castle.

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010


[1] E.M.Kronfield, Der Weihnachtsbaum, quoted in Pagan Christmas by Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006

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Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

2 thoughts on “Christmas Tree – a Pagan Survival”

  1. Upside down trees are sometimes called The Tree of Heaven— their roots are in the sky and their branches point towards the earth. I can’t remember what culture this is from, but it is in my book “The Enchanted Forest: the magical lore of trees”.

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