On the Yule Tree’s Origins

European pagans decorated evergreen trees, symbols of spring and life, in their homes long before Christianity.

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An evergreen, its color symbolizing hope, is cut and brought inside a home warmed by a fire. Joyous people deck the tree with bright, shiny, sparkling ornaments – a brilliant contrast to the cold, possibly snowy conditions outside in the dead of winter.

But this isn’t yuletide and that’s not a Christmas tree. It’s the winter solstice and pagans of Europe, long before Christianity has reached them, literally and figuratively bring a bit of spring and life (large and green) into their dwellings during the longest, darkest night of the year.

Ancient druids throughout the British Isles and northern Europe adorned their houses and temples with pine, spruce and fir to evoke everlasting life. Scandinavians believed Balder, their sun god, favored evergreens as special plants.

“Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture,” according to History.com. “The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.”

When Roman Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity in 313, the religion began to spread throughout Europe. These early Christians adopted and incorporated many pagan rituals (fertility rites of the spring were converted into Easter bunnies and eggs) and the Christmas tree evolved from those winter solstice celebrations.

Martin Luther is often credited with adding candles to a Christmas tree in the 1500s, but the first documented lighting of a yuletide evergreen wasn’t until 1660 in Germany.

The Moravians are believed to be the first to bring the Christmas tree to the United States in the early 1800s, according to Mental Floss. The yule tree took awhile to catch on in our country because of the heavy reach of the Puritans (in England and America) 200 years before. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell called the Christmas tree and other yuletide celebrations “heathen traditions,” and New England leader William Bradford did his best to eliminate “pagan mockery.”

The Puritans’ influence decreased as Irish, German and Scandinavian immigrants spread across the United States in the 19th century. Queen Victoria openly celebrated Christmas and all its traditions, and Americans of the day, often trying to imitate (and even out-do) the Victorians, hopped on the Christmas tree bandwagon. They haven’t jumped off.

Americans, Oklahomans included, frequently light public Christmas trees the evening of Thanksgiving; Bricktown in Oklahoma City and Utica Square in Tulsa did just that. Others wait a little bit and don’t put up their trees until this month.

But almost all who do have their evergreens lit, tinseled and bedazzled by Dec. 21, the winter solstice, a holy, spiritual time for pagans.

A Santa briefing

Santa Claus has a convoluted, conflated origin. According to Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Eberling in their Pagan Christmas, the jolly old elf’s name came from Sinterklaas, whose feast day, as patron saint of sailors and merchants, was the day before that of Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century Turkish bishop known for his generosity to children and poor people. Early legends of Saint Nicholas include his pagan sidekick, Ruprecht.

“In the end, [Santa] is a compromise figure between Catholic, Protestant and pre-Christian beliefs,” anthropologist Rudiger Vossen writes.

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