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What is the origin of the Christmas Tree?

Frist, let me just say, that the Christmas Tree had nothing to do with Martin Luther, who is often reported to have set up the first Christmas tree. There is absolutely no scholarly basis for this legend. Often when it comes to Christmas there is myths upon myths, but eventually the truth always comes out. Let us put the myths aside and tell the REAL story of the Christmas Tree. It is surprising to know that the Christmas Tree has some strong Christian roots...

The Paradise Tree was in one of the most popular props in the medieval mystery plays.

For the roots of the Christmas tree are medieval, and it is the Germans, with their innate sense of the innocence of Christmas, who spread the custom. 

Christmas Eve is the feast day of our first parents, Adam and Eve, who are commemorated as Saints in the calendars of the Catholic churches of Eastern rites. Their veneration spread also to the West and became very popular toward the end of the first millennium. In many old churches of Europe their statues may still be seen among the images of the Saints.

Around the 12th century the custom began of celebrating this feast on December 24 with the Paradise Play, which became one of the most popular medieval mystery plays. 


What is a mystery play?

In medieval western Europe, mystery or miracle plays taught biblical stories and Christian ideas to a largely illiterate populace. At first, only clergy acted in these plays, which were spoken in Latin and presented inside churches. As audiences grew, performances were moved to the front steps of the church or to large open plazas. With this movement out of sacred space, lay people began to take part in the plays, and the dialogue slipped into local languages. What's more, frivolous, humorous, and ribald incidents were added to the basic plot. Church official frowned on these changes but the plays only increased in popularity. Small groups of actors traveled from town to town satisfying the popular demand for this form of entertainment.

Mystery plays often rooted themselves in the seasons and feast days of the Church calendar. The paradise play, which recounted the story of Adam and Eve, attached itself to the Advent season. Although the play featured the story of the creation and the disobedience of Adam and Eve, it closed with the promise of the coming Savior. This made it appropriate for the celebration of Advent and Christmas. Moreover, the medieval Church declared December 24 the feast day of Adam and Eve. Around the twelfth century this date became the traditional one for the performance of the paradise play.

Paradise play is a medieval play or drama recounting Genesis 3 fall of Adam and Eve into sin by violating God's word, eating a fruit of Knowledge, and God's promise of a Redeemer born of a virgin woman. 

“I will put enmities between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed: she shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for her heel” (Genesis 3:15).

The play was performed in Advent weeks, which lasted 3-4 weeks before Christmas.


The play would have started with the fall of the rebel angles from heaven. I imagine this to have been a very exciting beginning, with a violent battle between good and evil. The creation story follows, with the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. This drama anticipated nativity play recounting the birth of Jesus as fulfillment of God's promise in Genesis 3:15

One of the few props in the play was a large evergreen tree called the "Paradise Tree."

The paradise tree served as the central prop for the paradise play. It represented the two important trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. Originally, only apples adorned the paradise tree. These symbolized the fall of humanity described in the Adam and Eve story. Perhaps because most other trees were barren and lifeless during December, the actors chose to hang the apples from an evergreen tree rather than from an apple tree. In the fifteenth century round, white communion wafers were added to the paradise tree. These wafers stood for the promise of reconciliation with God made possible through Jesus Christ.

The Germans enter the picture

With the rise of Humanism, Renaissance and Protestant Revolution the customs of performing the paradise play vanished. In fact, Germany had no theater for several centuries. But the Germans did not abandon the paradise tree.

There, it became the custom to put up a "paradise tree" in the home to honor the first parents. This was a fir tree laden with apples, the symbol of Adam's fall. They also decorated the tree with white wafers, as a symbol of man's redemption and salvation. Some Germans adopted a new name for the tree, calling it a "Christbaum," or "Christ tree." Over time white pastry dough ornaments cut into the shape of hearts, angels, stars, and bells replaced the communion wafers. It was customary as early as the 16th century in Germany to ring the tree with candles because the paradise play was enacted in such a ring.

Christmas in Germany, 1881

In fact, we find first mention of the Christmas tree as early as 1419 at the Freiburg Fraternity Baker's Apprentices of German Alsace. We also have a letter written by a Strasbourg resident in 1605 who describes the established custom, "At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors at Strasburg and hang thereon roses cut of many-colored paper, apples, wafer, gold-foil, sweets."

Until the 19th century, mostly edible items were used as tree decoration. Then, in 1880 glassmakers in Thuringia, Germany, discovered how to make blown glass balls and bells, and these soon replaced the apples. 

The custom spread naturally. From the Alsace the tree made its way to other regions of Germany and France. German settlers and soldiers brought the Christmas tree to America in the colonial period. The German born Queen Victoria formally introduced the Christmas tree in England in 1841 where it was warmly received, and soon the English were pretending that it was their idea, as in their habit.

So when you look at your Christmas Tree at home, be reminded of its Christian roots as it is actually the medieval Paradise tree, a reminder of the fall of our first parents and the promise of the coming of a Savior.

You may want to even add a glass apple ornament to your tree and share this story to your friends and family each year. Click this link to order a glass apple from Amazon that actually tells the story. "Apples were the traditional Christian symbol of temptation. Apples were hung on evergreen trees during the presentation of the Paradise plays in the medieval times and used during the reenactment of the story of Adam and Eve on Christmas Eve to reinforce the meaning of Christ's birth."