It’s hard to imagine Christmas without trees decorated with ornaments and lights.

Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated at this time of year, is believed to have been born more than 2000 years ago, but Christmas trees as we know them today only became widespread less than 200 years ago.

Many stories, not all proved true, claim to explain how the Christmas tree evolved.

These include:

  • A long time before Jesus was born ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews believed evergreen trees were symbols of eternal life. Before becoming Christian, many Europeans also practised tree worship. For example, Scandinavian people decorated their houses with evergreens at new year to scare away the devil.
  • During the 7th century an English monk went to Germany to spread the word of God. He used the triangular shape of the fir tree to explain the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that makes up the Holy Trinity. By the 12th century people hung upside-down fir trees from ceilings at Christmas time in central Europe to signify Christianity.
  • From the 11th century religious plays taught Germans about Christian stories. A “paradise play” about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden featured an evergreen tree decorated with apples to symbolise forbidden fruit. Later flat communion wafers were added to the “paradise tree”. People started to display fir trees decorated with apples and small white wafers in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. Over time pastry stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells were used instead of wafers.
  • Many German Christians also displayed Christmas pyramids — triangular-shaped wooden structures with shelves for nativity figurines and adorned with evergreen branches, candles, lollies and a star. The paradise tree and Christmas pyramid eventually “became one” in the form of a decorated Christmas tree.

More recently, the Christmas tree became known as a German custom and German migrants introduced it when they relocated to other countries such as Canada and the US in the late 1700s and 1800s.

When members of German royal families married other European royalty in countries such as Russia, Austria, France and Denmark, they also took the tradition with them.

Although introduced to England early in the 19th century, when popular Queen Victoria married German Prince Albert they put up spectacular trees at Christmas time and donated trees to schools and soldiers’ barracks.

Soon upper classes and later ordinary families enjoyed decorating a special tree at Christmas time. Decorations included candles, lollies and cakes hung by ribbon and paper chains.

Also in the 19th century Western missionaries introduced Christmas trees to China and Japan, where they were decorated with beautiful paper ornaments.
© The West Australian

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