These notes on the origins of the Christmas tree, are from an 1873 essay which appeared in Harper’s magazine.
The Christmas-tree is doubtless of German origin. Though in its present form it is comparatively of recent date, yet its pagan prototype enjoyed a very high antiquity.
The early Germans conceived of the world as a great tree whose roots were hidden deep, under the earth, but whose top, flourishing in the midst of Walhalla, the old German paradise, nourished the she-goat upon whose milk fallen heroes restored themselves.
Yggduafil was the name of this tree, and its memory was still green long after Christianity had been introduced into Germany, when much of its symbolic character was transferred to the Christmas-tree.
At first fitted up during the Twelve Nights in honor of Berchta, the goddess of spring, it was subsequently transferred to the birthday of Christ, who, as the God-man, is become the “resurrection and the life.” The evergreen fir-tree, an emblem of spring-time, became the symbol of an eternal spring. The burning lights were to adumbrate Him who is the ” light of the world,” and the gifts to remind us that God, in giving His only Son for the world’s redemption, conferred upon us the most priceless of all gifts.
This symbolism extended also to the most usual of Christmas presents, apples and nuts; the former being considered as an emblem of youth, the latter as a profound symbol of spring, while the “boy’s legs” relate to Saturn, who devoured his own children, and the Kropfel to the thunder-stone of Thor.
To invest the festival with additional importance in the eyes of children, the distribution of holiday presents was transferred from the 5th to the 24th of December, or from St. Nicholas’s Eve to Christmas-eve. Such was its origin.
Now the Christmas-tree, radiant with light and loaded with its rich variety of golden fruit, is not only to be found every where throughout Germany, but has taken root and become acclimated from the Alps to the Ural, and from the Kioleu to the Apennines; beneath Italian suns and amidst Lapland snows; alike on the banks of the Neva and the Po, the Mississippi and the Thames—in truth, wherever German civilization has penetrated or German Protestantism prevails.