For many, November starts a familiar ritual. We clear the mantle, pull a horde of holiday knickknacks out of storage and begin to take apart our tangled candle nests. A spiny tree makes a rare appearance indoors. Cones, garlands, sleds, candy canes and somehow even nutcrackers all become a big deal almost overnight. Every surface in sight is dressed in red, gold, white and green. It’s a collective effort so universal that few of us ever stop to wonder why we’re doing it in the first place.
Still, it’s a question worth pondering why we make such a fuss about Christmas decorations. As it turns out, the reasons behind all the trees and lights are as diverse as the ways we celebrate the season, based on traditions whose roots stretch back centuries.
Long before we started propping up fake fir trees in our living rooms, the ancient Romans decorated their homes with garlands of evergreens as part of their raucous Saturnalia celebrations. As one of the few plants that bloom in the middle of winter, evergreens stood as a symbol of enduring life in the midst of the cold, dark season throughout Europe. But how they came to be associated with Christmas is a matter of discussion.
Early Christians were not often big fans of decorations in general and were especially wary of pagan signs like these sprigs of evergreen. Tertullian, a prominent second-century evangelist, even went so far as to say that these “bay leaves” were doomed to burn in the “fires of hell” along with those who placed them in their homes. But today, just like the candles and other holiday accessories, trees have become an important part of the Christmas tradition for religious and secular people alike. So what changed?
One story says that when the English Benedictine monk Boniface was doing missionary work in 7th century Germany, he came across a clan of native Germans making sacrifices in front of a massive oak tree as a tribute to Thor. To stop their idolatry, Boniface cut down the tree, and the pagans stood in shock, waiting for the lightning of their god to fall on Boniface’s head. When it didn’t, he took the opportunity to convert them. Months later, a fir sprouted from the fallen oak – a triangular symbol of the Trinity and rebirth in Christianity.
This legend and others like it are undoubtedly the reason why the tradition we know as the modern Christmas tree began to take hold among Christians in 16th century Germany. After the custom spread to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 1840s, it wasn’t long before nearly every British and American household had a tree decorated with lights for the holiday.
Although Christmas has largely become a secular holiday today, for many Christians the “reason for the season” is still the birth of Jesus Christ. For them, every decoration is filtered through the lens of faith. Enduring fir trees stand for eternal life. The star at the top listens to the one seen by the wise men in the nativity story. And Christmas lights represent the savior’s hope and comfort, a constant comfort that shines even in the dark depths of winter.
Of course, those of other religious traditions decorate as part of their faith during the holiday season as well. For example, Jews light their menorahs during the eight days of Hannukah as a symbol of the original light of creation, set out dreidels or make paper chains in the style of the celebration of Sukkot.