One of the most popular traditions associated with the celebration of Christmas, the Christmas tree is normally an evergreen coniferous tree that is brought in the house or used in the open and is decorated with lights and colourful ornaments during the days preceding and immediately following Christmas. Delicate mold-blown and painted colored glass tree ornaments were a specialty of Czech glass factories from the late 19th-century.
This is a Christianization of the ancient pagan idea that the evergreen tree represents a celebration of the renewal of life. In Roman mosaics from Tunisia showing the mythic triumphant return from India of the life-death-rebirth deity Dionysus, the god carries a tapering coniferous tree.
The tradition is most widely observed in the more northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere (north of about 45°N latitude), where Christmas falls at a time when daylight hours are very short, and temperatures often below freezing (0°C) with snow covering the ground. In northern Europe a promise of renewal is essential at a time of death, darkness and cold at the winter solstice. Medieval legends, nevertheless, tended to concentrate more on the miraculous flowering of trees at Christmastime. A bough of flowering Glastonbury thorn is still sent annually for the Queen's Christmas table.
The Queen's Christmas tree at Osborne House. The engraving republished in Godey's Lady's Book, Philadelphia, December 1850Though houses were dressed at Christmas with evergreen boughs, in northern Europe, the Christmas tree was not customary in the English-speaking world. It was introduced by King George III's German Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but didn't spread much beyond the royal family until the royal family Christmasses centered round Prince Albert at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, were illustrated in steel engravings published in English magazines, and copied in the US (illustration, left) for Christmas 1850. Such patriotic prints of the British royal family at Christmas celebrations helped popularize the Christmas tree in Britain and among the anglophile American upper class.
Like many other Christmas traditions, the universally-popular Christmas tree is derived from a fusion of Christian ideas with older pagan traditions. The custom originated in Germany. According to one legend, Saint Boniface attempted to introduce the idea of trinity to the pagan tribes using the Cone-shaped evergreen trees because of their triangular appearance. The tradition of hanging decorations (representing fruit or gifts) on the trees is very old, with some early reports coming from Germany's upper Rhine region, but the tradition of attaching candles is attributed to Martin Luther. A related tradition was hanging evergreen branches throughout the home. With time, these evergreen branches gave way to garlands, vines and wreaths.
However, the Germanic tribes celebrated the Yule tradition by sacrificing male animals, and slaves, by suspending them on the branches of trees. In Scandinavia the Viking kings sacrificed nine males of each species at the sacred groves. Poor people hanged apples and buns and other small sacrifices on branches. It is likely that the Christmas tree is a continuation of this tradition (cf. the maypole of the summer solstice).
European tradition prefers the open aspect of naturally grown, unsheared trees (as in the photo, right), while in North America there is a preference for close-sheared trees with denser foliage, but less space to hang decorations. The shearing also damages the highly attractive symmetry of natural trees. In the past, Christmas trees were often harvested from wild forests, but now almost all are commercially grown on tree farms. Artificial Christmas trees, made of metal and plastic, are also widely used.