The history of the Christmas tree
by Philippa Rae
Suitable for Key Stage 2
To consider the history of the Christmas tree.
Preparation and materials
Have available some images of Christmas trees and the means to display them during the assembly. Examples could include:
- a Christmas tree with presents beneath it, available at: https://tinyurl.com/ycaljxe3
- a traditionally decorated Christmas tree, available at: https://tinyurl.com/zdzbket
- blurred lights on a Christmas tree, available at: https://tinyurl.com/y9lecswr
- a selection of artificial Christmas trees, available at: https://tinyurl.com/ybxwgpgb
You will also need the famous image of the Royal Family gathered around the tree, which was first published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. It is available at: https://tinyurl.com/hubh7d8
Optional: you may wish to show some images of Christmas trees from around the world. Examples are available at: https://tinyurl.com/ybd4ajtp
- Optional: you may wish to display a Countdown to Christmas clock (available at: http://www.xmasclock.com/), in which case you will also need the means to do so.
Optional: you may wish to have some decorations available to decorate the school Christmas tree during the assembly.
More information about Christmas traditions that began in Victorian times is available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/victorian-christmas-traditions and http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml
Tell the children how many days are left until Christmas.
Optional: show the Countdown to Christmas clock.
Ask the children what they like best about Christmas.
Point out that many people love to decorate their Christmas trees.
Ask the children if they have a Christmas tree in their homes. Ask a few of them to describe what it looks like.
Explain that traditionally, spruce, pine or fir trees are used as Christmas trees. These trees are known as ‘evergreens’ because their leaves stay green all year long. Long before the advent of Christianity, people such as the Romans, the Chinese and the Egyptians believed that evergreen plants had a special meaning, ranging from warding off evil spirits or illness to acting as a reminder during winter that spring was on its way. Amid the barrenness of winter, the evergreen was seen as a symbol of eternal life. Branches were placed around the house as decorations, and wreaths were made from evergreen leaves. However, nowadays, many people use artificial Christmas trees, which they can pack away and then use year after year.
Show the images of Christmas trees.
Optional: show some images of Christmas trees from around the world.
Some of the first Christmas trees were thought to be potted cherry or hawthorn plants that were brought indoors to flower at Christmastime. Less well-off people made pyramids of wood, which they decorated with paper, apples and candles.
In the Middle Ages, paradise trees were used in biblical dramas as part of the church’s worship. People began to bring these trees or evergreen branches - known as ‘paradises’ - into their homes. Over time, people began to hang symbols to do with Christianity on the trees, such as the wafers used in the communion (Eucharist) service.
Over the next 200 years, the custom of decorated trees gained popularity. The pyramid and paradise trees seem to have merged into one: the early forerunners of our Christmas trees. The initial reaction to these trees was not always favourable, because some felt that they detracted from the true meaning of Christmas. However, many churches still continued to set up trees. Next to them, they often placed wooden, pyramid-shaped stacks of shelves bearing candles and eventually, these pyramids of candles were placed on the tree. The candles symbolized Jesus as the light of the world.
It was during Victorian times that the celebration of Christmas moved towards the big annual celebration that it is today, and was made into a holiday. Many customs such as sending greetings cards started during this time.
The first Christmas trees came to Britain some time in the 1830s, but it was Queen Victoria’s husband, the German-born Prince Albert, who popularized the use of Christmas trees when he set one up in Windsor Castle.
Show the famous image of the Royal Family gathered around the tree, which was first published in the Illustrated London News in 1848.
Victorian trees were decorated with toys and small gifts, sweets, candles, popcorn strings and fancy cakes, which were hung from the branches by ribbons and paper chains. Today, we place electric lights on our trees instead of candles. Although decorations change with the current fashions, the image of a Christmas tree with presents arranged underneath it is an enduring one, and seen everywhere at Christmastime.
Time for reflection
Amid the glitter and sparkle of Christmas decorations, and the busyness and bustle of Christmas shopping, let us be still as we reflect on the true meaning of the Christmas tree.
Just like the tree’s evergreen branches and leaves make us think of growth and life, let us reflect that the baby Jesus was born at Christmas. Christians believe that Jesus brought everlasting life to the world. As we think about the presents under the tree, let us remember the gift of the baby Jesus.
Thank you for the celebration of Christmas, the anniversary that marks the birth of Jesus.
Thank you for the fun and joy that we share with families and friends at this special time.
Please be with those who are lonely this Christmas.
Please help us to remember how fortunate we are.
Any appropriate Christmas song.