The Legend of the Christmas Tree

Evergreen in the snow with lights on it.I think the lore and symbolism of plants is fascinating. On this Christmas Day let’s look the history and legend of the Christmas tree.

Decorated trees can be traced back to the ancient Roman winter festival of Saturnalia.  Trees were ornamented with pieces of metal in honor of Saturn the god of agriculture.

During the middle ages, the Paradise Tree, which symbolized man’s fall and salvation, became popular in churches and upper class homes.  Fir trees were hung with apples symbolizing man’s fall, small white wafers representing Holy Eucharist, and sweets symbolizing the sweetness of redemption.

After observing the beauty of stars winking through the trees in an evergreen forest one night in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther added candles to the Christmas tree.

In the United States Christmas trees were not popularized until about 1850.  Prior to that time Christmas trees were mainly found in homes of German immigrants.

Nowadays we use many types of evergreens for Christmas trees but the pine and fir each have special legends associated with the holiday.

As Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus fled to Egypt plants aided their escape.  One evening the family stopped near a large old pine tree.  The tree invited them to spend the night inside the hollow area in its trunk.  After the family was inside the tree folded its branches down around the family, hiding them when Herod’s soldiers passed.  In the morning the Christ Child blessed the pine tree with an imprint of his tiny hand.  If you cut a pinecone in half lengthwise, you will see the hand in the cone.

The legend of the fir tree comes from northern Europe.  During the time Christianity was spreading though Europe three angels, Faith, Hope, and Charity, were sent to Earth to put lights on the first Christmas tree.  Their mission was difficult because they had to find a tree as high as hope, as great as love, and as sweet as charity.  The tree also had to contain the sign of the cross.  The angels’ search came to an end when they found the fir tree of the frozen North.  (If you break off a fir needle and look at the stub on the branch you will see the cross.)  They lit the fir with stars to make the world’s first Christmas tree.


Barb Larson is horticulture educator for Kenosha County University of Wisconsin Extension. Barb has a Master’s of Science in horticulture from the UW-Madison. If you have a plant or gardening question, email Larson at  or call her at 262-857-1945.