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Ancient Origins of the Christmas Tree - A Guide for Kids

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Martin Luther & his Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree is a well-recognised symbol for celebrations at this festive time of year. The modern tradition of putting up a Christmas tree is often credited to Martin Luther, a 16th-century Protestant reformer in Germany. Luther witnessed stars twinkling through the branches of an evergreen tree and immediately went home to recreate the scene in his own family home by erecting a tree and decorating it with candles.

The Illustrated London News

The Christmas Tree was then made popular in 1846 by the British Royals, Queen Victoria, and her husband Prince Albert. They were sketched with their children in the newspaper, the Illustrated London News, standing around a lavishly decorated Christmas tree. This set a trend, and soon, family homes around the globe featured fashionable Christmas trees adorned with candles and all sorts of extravagant decorations. And so, the tradition was born.

But the origins of the Christmas Tree date back far beyond Martin Luther and his twinkling tree stars. In fact, the tradition of decorating houses with evergreen trees dates back to many ancient cultures and their celebration of the Winter Solstice.

What is the Winter Solstice?

The Winter Solstice is the day with the shortest daylight hours in the year. It is also known as the “longest night”. In the Northern hemisphere (the top half of the world) the Winter Solstice happens around the 21st of December every year. After the Winter Solstice, the daylight hours gradually get longer and the hours of darkness at night get shorter until the Summer Solstice (around 21st June).

The pagans saw the Winter Solstice as a turning point in the year, marking the start of the regrowth of plants and crops as the sun returns. It was a time to celebrate farming, nature, and life over death.

Many ancient pagan cultures hosted festivals to celebrate the Winter Solstice. This included the Celts, the Norse, the Inca, and even back as far as early humans in the Stone Age.

We found out how these Winter Solstice Festivals may have influenced our modern-day tradition of the Christmas Tree.

Ancient Egyptians Collecting Palm Branches

Ancient Egypt (3100BC-30BC):

Like many ancient cultures, the Egyptians celebrated the Winter Solstice for 12 days starting on December 21st.

Using Palm Branches for Decoration

They actually had a special celebration on the 25th December for the re-birth of the sun. The Egyptian sun god was called Ra. For the three days prior to the 25th, the sun (Ra) would barely be visible during the daytime because it was at its lowest point in the sky. On the 25th of December, the sun would finally rise, leading to the Egyptians celebrating the re-birth of the sun god Ra (or as it would later be known; the birth of the Sun of God – sound familiar?).

During the Winter Solstice, the Ancient Egyptians celebrated by decorating their homes with lush plants such as palm leaves and branches. These trees were green all year round (much like the evergreen fir tree regularly used for modern-day Christmas trees) and were used to show triumph over death during the darker days of winter. Decorating their homes like this was thought to bring a prosperous year.

The Roman Saturnalia Festival

Ancient Rome (753BC-476AD):

The Ancient Romans had a special festival to celebrate midwinter and the Winter Solstice, called Saturnalia. The festival honoured the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn, and began on December 17th. Saturnalia originated as a farming celebration, marking the return of the sun and the promise of good crop growth in the new year. It soon developed into a week-long festival full of revelry.

During the festival, work stopped, schools were closed and the Romans celebrated with music, feasting, socialising, and giving each other gifts. They would often give each other candles as a present to signify the light of the sun returning after the Winter Solstice.

Roman people would decorate their homes and temples with wreaths made from the branches of evergreen trees. They would also decorate evergreen trees growing outside of their homes with ornaments. As with many pagan celebrations, the evergreen trees represented eternal life with the return of the sun.

The Norse Yuletide Festival

Vikings (793AD-1066AD):

The Vikings (and other Scandinavian & Germanic people of this time) celebrated the Yuletide Festival for 12 days starting on December 25th. The festival was primarily a celebration of the re-awakening of nature brought on by the returning of the sun after the Winter Solstice.

During this time, the Norse god Odin would fly across the sky on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, delivering gifts to children (remind you of anyone?). The children would leave their boots by the fireplace (much like we do today with stockings) for Odin to pop the presents into.

Odin on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir

Norse people believed that evergreen plants had magical properties that would protect them from the evil spirits that would come out at the darkest time of year. They hung branches of evergreen trees, holly, and mistletoe over their doors and windows as protection. During the Yule Festival, the Vikings would also decorate a “Yule Tree” with small statues of their gods, clothing, and food.

It’s not hard to see how the Winter Solstice celebrations hosted by many of these early pagan cultures are very similar to the ways in which we celebrate Christmas today. But one feature that consistently crops up across many of these festivals is the use of evergreen trees for decoration in the home. A tradition that we continue today.


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