It is generally believed that the first Christmas tree was of German origin dating from the time of St. Boniface, English missionary to Germany in the 8th century. He replaced the sacrifices to the Norse god Odin’s sacred oak—some say it was Thor’s Thunder Oak—with a fir tree adorned in tribute to the Christ child. The legend is told that Boniface found a group of “pagans” preparing to sacrifice a boy near an oak tree near Lower Hesse, Germany. He cut down the oak tree with a single stroke of his ax and stopped the sacrifice. A small fir tree sprang up in place of the oak. He told the pagans that this was the “tree of life” and stood for Christ.
A legend began to circulate in the early Middle Ages that when Jesus was born in the dead of winter, all the trees throughout the world shook off their ice and snow and produced new shoots of green. The medieval Church would decorate outdoor fir trees—known as “paradise trees”—with apples on Christmas Eve, which they called “Adam and Eve Day” and celebrated with a play.
During Renaissance times there are records that trees were being used as symbols for Christians first in the Latvian capital of Riga in 1510. The story goes that it was attended by men wearing black hats in front of the House of Blackheads in the Town Hall Square, who following a ceremony burnt the tree. But whether it was for Christmas or Ash Wednesday is still debated. I’ve stood in that very square myself in the Winter, surrounded by snow.
Returning to his home after a walk one winter night, the story goes, Luther tried unsuccessfully to describe to his family the beauty of the starry night glittering through the trees. Instead, he went out and cut down a small fir tree and put lighted candles upon it.
In a manuscript dated 1605, a merchant in Strasbourg, Germany wrote that at Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors and “hang thereon roses cut out of paper of many colors, apples, wafers, spangle-gold and sugar …” Though the selling of Christmas trees is mentioned back to the mid-1500s in Strasbourg, the custom of decorating the trees may have developed from the medieval Paradise Play. This play was a favorite during the Advent season because it ended with the promise of a Savior. The action in the play centered around a fir tree hung with apples.