Did you know that if you join more than about four strings of Christmas tree lights together, end to end, there's a pretty good chance that the little fuse in the plug will be unable to take the load, and will blow, and all the strings will go out? I learned this yesterday. Nothing dramatic; just, one minute the tree at work was lit up, the next minute it wasn't, even though it was still plugged in. Aw, of course (a couple of people said) - you have to split up the lights into two or three sections, of just a couple strings each, and run the cords down the trunk and plug them all in separately. Doesn't everyone know that? Well, I didn't till yesterday. And now I'm telling you. (Plus, once you've blown the fuse, that string is toast: you just have to toss it and replace it with a fresh one. I guess nobody wants to pry open plugs and replace a teeny-tiny little fuse.)
A coworker asked me, while I was stringing lights, where the custom of decorating a Christmas tree came from. I answered something like, "Oh, it was one of those pagan things - you know, tree worship, Yule log, Druid stuff - that got folded into Christianity, along with the winter solstice thing. Or something. I guess." I started to realize, as I spoke, that in truth I didn't know.
So today I did some quick web research, sorted out the raving pagan nuts and the raving Christian loonies from the actual scholarly work, and found that my answer was not very accurate.
Mistletoe, holly, Yule logs - yeah, the Druids were into those things. Same with tree-worship, of course. But the Druids seemed to prefer oaks, and there doesn't seem to be much indication of decorated winter fir trees in the British Isles till 1841, when Queen Vicki and Prince Al set up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle and made it fashionable. So where did they get the idea?
Germany, it seems. All sources I saw agreed that the Christmas tree as we know it - a fir with lights and/or ornaments, intended to celebrate Christmas - came from Germany, where apparently there are a lot of firs. When did this start? Earliest record of a decorated tree is from 1521. Other mentions pop up throughout the 1600s. By this time Germany was of course predominantly Christian. However, was this custom adapted from a local pagan fir-worship?
Again: hard to verify for sure, but seems plausible. There has always been a widespread worship of (or reverence for) trees, in practically all cultures. It needn't point to any specific one. The symbolism here is pretty transparent. As this useful page puts it:
evergreens have been a symbol of rebirth from ancient times. Bringing greenery into one's home, often at the time of the winter solstice, symbolized life in the midst of death in many cultures.
That said, it seems that there is one specific tree-related rite that our Christmas tree descends from. And it ain't pagan: it's Christian. We speak of the "Paradise play," a play very popular throughout Europe in medieval times, depicting Adam and Eve and their fall from grace. According to the same webpage cited above, The only prop on stage was the "Paradise tree," a fir tree adorned with apples. No coincidence then, perhaps, that some of the earliest tree decorations we find mention of are edible items: fruits, nuts, sweets, and the like.
Fixing the Paradise tree in December, around the solstice, could have been a tidy way to tie together the Christian holiday and the pan-cultural fondness for having fresh greenery in the house during the darkest and coldest time of the year. Putting lights on it would have brightened the darkness. It's fairly simple, and I like it better than the convulted conspiracy theories or the farfetched legends. I'm a follower of Occam's Razor whenever possible (i.e., the simplest explanation is the right one).
And that concludes my crash course in possibly apocryphal Christmas tree origins.