Christmas Tree Meaning: Behind the Beloved Tradition

You love putting up your Christmas tree, but do you really know why you do it? Take a look into tree's real meaning.

Updated June 18, 2021
Christmas Tree Lights

As you decorate your home for the holidays and bundle up to make the trek to find the perfect tree to set down in front of your fireplace, you may be wondering if there is a Christmas tree meaning and where this unique tradition even got its start. Before you hoist someone onto your shoulders to place your family's tree topper just right, take a look at where this decorative custom came from and how people incorporate it into their holiday traditions today.

History of the Christmas Tree

The tradition of the Christmas tree may actually be older than Christmas itself. The Ancient Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks, the Germanic cultures of early Europe, and the Ancient Romans all practiced some version of the tree decorating ceremony now associated with Christmas. In many of these cultures, trees were symbolic of eternal life and fertility. The typical life cycle of a deciduous tree, which drops its leaves in the fall and winter, naturally called to mind the human cycle of life and death. The evergreen stood out because of its tendency to hold needles all year, leading people to associate this type of tree with vitality and magic.

The decorating of trees first became associated with Christmas in 16th century Germany. During this time, Western German peasants began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate the Feast of Adam and Eve, an annual event which took place on December 24. By the mid-1800s, Christmas trees were popular holiday decorations across Europe and America.

Regardless of its origin, today the Christmas tree symbolizes several important aspects of the Christmas holiday, including the following:

  • The giving spirit and exchange of presents
  • Embracing nature and its role in the changing seasons
  • Eternal life
  • Embracing the traditions of the holiday
Man carrying Christmas tree on snow

Decorating the Christmas Tree: Meaning and Symbolism

Few symbols are as powerfully linked to the celebration of Christmas as the Christmas tree. As anyone who has passed down Christmas decorations from generation to generation is aware, there are strong associations surrounding this custom. Although you may not think about it as you string the lights this year, each Christmas tree decoration symbolizes something important. Here are a few of the most notable examples:

  • Depending on your background, the lights on your Christmas tree may represent the light of God's spirit, the importance of enlightenment or knowledge, or the warmth of family love.
  • Some modern Christians believe that the red ornaments or decorations on a Christmas tree are symbolic of Christ's blood or sacrifice.
  • Traditionally, the Christmas tree is topped by a star or an angel. Both of these symbols are very important in the story of the birth of Jesus.
  • Ribbons and garlands may signify the ties that bind family members together during the holidays and throughout the year.
Decorating the Christmas Tree

The Fake Christmas Tree Arrives

Not everyone enjoyed hunting for the perfect tree to set up in their living rooms; rather, artificial Christmas trees first appeared in the 1880s, when goose feathers were dyed green and attached to a branch-like system made out of wire. Of course, these trees weren't intended to last more than a season or two, meaning that more lasting trees needed to be developed. This is where the English Addis Brush Company came to the rescue in the early 20th century when they took their toilet brush bristles and used them instead of goose feathers to make their version of an artificial tree. This lasted until the mid-century when people, infatuated with futurism and its aesthetic, were drawn to aluminum trees. Thankfully, bright silver aluminium trees fell out of favor, and by the 21st century, most families who used artificial trees during Christmastime had bought ones made out of PVC. Contemporary trees come in a variety of colors, with some being pre-lit and others even coming pre-decorated for easy installation.

The Fake Christmas Tree Arrives

Personal Meaning

For many people, Christmas tree meaning is largely a personal matter. The tradition of decorating a tree is an important childhood memory, and families share this experience with successive generations. For some families, the most treasured ornaments are those that capture a time and place in their history, perhaps something made by a child or a bauble purchased on a special holiday trip. These days, every Christmas tree is different and meaningful in its own way.

Keep Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

Whatever the origin of the Christmas tree and the meaning behind the traditional decorations is, it's clear that this evergreen is symbolic of something great to many people: the spirit of Christmas and the love of their family.

Christmas Tree Meaning: Behind the Beloved Tradition