There is perhaps no better way to prepare for Christmas than to "deck the halls." Evergreen boughs, lights, and other decorations around the house remind us that Christmas is coming! The centerpiece of the home is, of course, the Christmas tree, a beloved tradition that spans the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Origin of the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree has a long history. Early peoples (Egyptians, Chinese, Romans, Celts, and Vikings) decorated their homes with evergreen branches as symbols of life amidst the cold darkness of winter.

The tree tradition we know today got its start in medieval Germany. At that time, open-air dramas depicting biblical themes were popular. Because December 24 was also the feastday of Adam and Eve, the play on Christmas Eve featured a “paradise tree” — an evergreen hung with apples — to symbolize the Garden of Eden. When these plays were banned in the 16th century, devout Christians would bring paradise trees into their homes on Christmas Eve and decorate them with fruit, candles, and wafers (to symbolize the Eucharist). As the tradition grew, the fruit gave way to ornamental bulbs, and the wafers were replaced with cookies and other treats.

The tradition got a royal boost in the 1840s, when a delightful sketch appeared in a London newspaper depicting the popular Queen Victoria and her family around a Christmas tree. Soldiers, dolls, and other toys were clustered at its base, and the branches were hung with candles, small gifts, candies, fancy cakes, and ribbon. The modern-day Christmas tree was born.

Read more about the history of the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree is perfectly appropriate for the Advent season. As you integrate the tree into your other Advent practices, give some thought to the following.

The tree as a symbol of Christ

You may have heard people jokingly refer to Christmas trees as “pagan” symbols. But this not only gets history wrong. It also misses what Christians have traditionally seen in the tree: a representation of Christ. Let the Christmas tree be that for you and your family.

  • When you see the evergreen boughs, think of the everlasting life we have through Christ.
  • When the tree sparkles with light, think of Jesus’s words: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
  • Think, finally, of how a tree reminds us of the Gospel and God’s redemptive grace — from the fall in Eden when sin cut us off from the Tree of Life, to Calvary where Christ was nailed to a tree for our salvation, to the promise of the world to come where a Second Tree of Life will eternally bear “twelve crops of fruit” and yield leaves “for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).

The Christmas tree is a beautiful, Christian symbol of the season. Celebrate with it joyously!

When to put up the tree

Traditionally and for historic reasons, the Christmas tree was set up on Christmas Eve and kept up until Epiphany. In that sense, it was truly a Christmas tree. But as the popularity of the “holiday season” grew, trees began going up earlier. Today, many Americans decorate their trees the weekend after Thanksgiving, in late November.  

There is nothing wrong with any of these traditions. Your practices should reflect what your family likes best.

But if you don’t want to wait till Christmas Eve, consider setting up your Christmas tree on the the third Sunday of Advent. This is the day we light the “Joy” candle in our Advent wreaths and rejoice because Advent is half-over and Christmas is almost here! Decorating and lighting a Christmas tree are perfect activities for this day, the Sunday of Joy.