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Origins of the Christmas tree

by Marsha Mundy  
11/01/2006 / Holidays

With all the hoopla lately about calling Christmas trees - holiday trees, I was curious about just how the custom of Christmas trees began.
As a Christian, I had been taught that Martin Luther, one of the founders of the protestant faith, was walking through a forest on Christmas Eve, he was looking at an evergreen tree and saw the stars shining through the branches. He was so enamored by the sight that he cut a small tree, took it home and tried to create the starlight affect by placing candles on the branches. Thus, the first Christmas tree.
Another legend has an English monk, Saint Boniface, coming upon a group of pagans gathered around an oak tree to sacrifice a child to their god Thor. He stopped the sacrifice by felling the tree with one blow from his fist. In the place of the oak, a small fir tree grew. He told the pagans that the fir was the tree of life and that it symbolized eternal life in Christ.
Yet another legend stems from the "Paradise Play" from medieval times. Many people couldn't read and plays were used to teach Bible lessons. The "Paradise Play" performed on Christmas Eve, told the story of the creation of man and the fall of Adam and Eve. The fall was represented with Eve picking an apple from a tree. In winter, no apple trees had green leaves, so an evergreen tree was substituted and apples were hung from the branches.
One more legend refers to a poor woodsman who met a lost and hungry child on Christmas Eve. Even though he was poor, he gave the child food and shelter for the night. The next morning he found a beautiful glittering tree outside his door. The child was really the Christ child in disguise and he created the tree to reward the man for his charity.
Every legend that I could find had Christmas as an origin for the tree.
Another legend that I discovered while searching for Christmas tree origins was the tradition of topping a tree with an angel or a star. The decorations symbolize the star of Bethlehem or the angel that appeared to the shepherds to tell them about the birth of Christ.
In Ireland, a large candle is placed in the window of the home on Christmas Eve to symbolize that Mary and Joseph would be welcomed into the home. The couple could find no lodging in Bethlehem except a stable and that is where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Showing that you welcome the couple to your home with a candle in the window is another way of celebrating the birth of Jesus.
The Jewish holiday Hanukkah or the Feast of Lights is a celebration of the Jewish victory from occupation and the cleansing of their temple performed in December. They use lights and decorations during the same time as the Christmas celebration, but the Jewish people are not celebrating the birth of Christ.
I researched the holiday of Kwanzaa to see if a tree was part of their celebration and found that it is a relatively new holiday. Created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga of California State University to celebrate the African American family, community and culture. It is observed from Dec. 26 to Jan 1 and builds on five fundamental activities; in gathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration. It is a cultural holiday, not a religious one and is practiced by Africans of all religious faiths.
I have not found the Christmas tree with any origin than that of Christianity. Therefore, I will always refer to it as the Christmas tree.
Another thing that I discovered was the roots of the phrase "Merry Christmas." Christmas is a translation of the old English Cristes Maesse or the Mass of Christ. It was celebrated on the eve of his recognized birthday. When the phrase "Merry Christmas" first came about, the word merry meant peaceful or blessed. So when someone wished you a "Merry Christmas," they were actually saying "have a peaceful, blessed Mass of Christ," or in terms today "have a peaceful and blessed Christmas."
I suppose that I could wish you Happy Holidays and that would encompass Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas, but then I'm not Jewish and don't celebrate Hanukkah, I'm not African-American and don't celebrate Kwanzaa. I am, however, a Christian and I do celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and so I wish you a "Merry Christmas."

Marsha Mundy, of Bethel, Ohio, is a Christian and a news editor for a county paper. She is the wife of a pastor, the mother of two sons and grandmother of five. She can be reached by email at To see her weekly column visit and click on opinion.

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