The History of the Christmas Tree
From winter solstice celebrations to Queen Victoria’s decorating traditions
by Hannah Taylor
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore the history of the Christmas tree and how the tradition has evolved to the present day.
Preparation and materials
- You will need the PowerPoint slides that accompany this assembly (The History of the Christmas Tree) and the means to display them.
- Show Slide 1.
Have you ever wondered why at Christmas, so many households have a Christmas tree standing proudly in their home? Where did the tradition start? And why do we hang lights, ornaments and treats on them?
- In the northern hemisphere, our winter solstice falls on 21 December. This is when we have the shortest day and longest night of the year.
Long ago, many people believed that the sun was a god, and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. Therefore, plants and trees that remained green all year round had a special meaning for people in winter. Seeing a green plant or tree in winter was a reassuring reminder that other plants would grow again, and summer would return.
- The Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Vikings used to decorate their homes with palms and evergreen boughs to mark the winter solstice. This is what lies behind the tradition of the Christmas tree.
However, it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that German families started the tradition of the Christmas tree as we know it today by putting up a tree in their homes.
- One custom was to celebrate the story of Adam and Eve by creating a Paradise Tree. Families would decorate a fir tree with apples and use it as a prop for a medieval play about Adam and Eve.
Another custom was to celebrate the birth of Christ as the Light of the World by creating a Christmas Light. This was a small, wooden pyramid-like frame that was usually decorated with baubles, tinsel and a candle on top.
So, German families would put up a tree in their homes on 24 December, either to reflect on the story of Adam and Eve or to celebrate the religious feast day of Christmas.
- Show Slide 2.
As the years passed, Christmas trees started to become very popular. In the nineteenth century, they were introduced to England by the German-born Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. The royal family decorated their Victorian tree with toys, small gifts, candles, sweets, fancy cakes and paperchains.
A famous portrait was drawn of the Victorian royal family standing around the Christmas tree. It wasn’t long before everyone else wanted one too.
- Later, the discovery of electricity led to the creation of Christmas lights, which meant that Christmas trees could sparkle with lights for days at a time.
- Many Christians believe that the Christmas tree is symbolic of the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Time for reflection
For many of us, the moment we put up our Christmas tree feels like the start of the Christmas celebrations. Decorating the tree will mean something different to all of us, bringing back special memories and reminding us of what Christmas is all about.
Now that we have learnt about some of the traditions behind the Christmas tree, maybe we could think about them as we decorate our trees. We could consider a couple of questions such as:
- is there any significance in the way we decorate our trees?
- what does Christmas mean to each of us?
Thank you for this special time where we can all be together
To celebrate the birth of Jesus, our saviour, and his love for us.
‘O Christmas tree’, available at: https://youtu.be/R00GbYoJJtc (2.25 minutes long)