Why Were Trees Decorated With Candles?

The beautiful and captivating sight of a Christmas tree adorned with glowing candles is a beloved tradition that evokes a nostalgic holiday charm. Though the practice of decorating trees with candles and lights has evolved over time, the allure of illuminating an evergreen tree remains a cherished part of Christmas festivities around the world. The warm glow draws families near to share in the seasonal magic. How and why did this enchanting tradition begin? The story spans many centuries and cultures.

Origins in Winter Solstice Celebrations

The practice of decorating trees with candles likely originated in pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations across Europe. During the darkest days of winter, ancient pagan cultures would use fire and light to symbolize the return of longer days and the rebirth of the sun. Evergreen trees and plants like holly were seen as manifestations of life’s endurance through the winter.

In Scandinavian and Germanic regions, people would bring evergreens into their homes and decorate them with candles to mark the winter solstice. Candles were lit to invite the sun’s return and scare away evil spirits that were believed to roam in the darkness. Logs from evergreen trees would be selected to burn in a Yule fire, representing the death of the old year and rebirth of the new. The Yule log would be kept burning through 12 days of feasting.

Decorating evergreen trees and plants with fire and light was an integral part of winter solstice rituals across northern Europe before the spread of Christianity. The symbolism and customs would later influence Christmas tree traditions.

Spread of Christianity

As Christianity spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, it began to blend with existing pagan traditions and winter solstice celebrations. The Druids in ancient Britain and Gaul revered evergreen trees as magical and sacred. When Christianity reached the Teutonic and Scandinavian regions, people there also decorated evergreen trees and brought them indoors during the winter.

The Christmas tree tradition likely grew out of these blending religious practices and winter solstice customs. As Christianity spread, pagan cultures were often assimilated rather than eliminated. Important events like the winter solstice were adapted into the Christian calendar. Evergreen trees and decorations that were part of pagan winter celebrations were allowed to continue but reinterpreted with Christian symbolism.

The evergreen tree came to represent everlasting life in Christ, with its branches pointing to heaven. The tree was decorated with fruits and nuts, representing the Garden of Eden. Candles and lights on the tree signified Christ as the light of the world.

In this way, the pagan tradition of decorating evergreen trees during the winter was absorbed into Christmas celebrations as Christianity expanded. The enduring vitality of the evergreen tree offered hope during the winter and came to embody Christian themes of life, light and heaven.

The Evergreen Tree

The evergreen tree has long held symbolic meaning and significance during the winter season. Unlike other trees that lose their leaves and appear to “die” in winter, evergreen trees like pine, spruce, and fir maintain their green needles all year round. This persistence of life during the darkest and coldest time of year makes evergreens a powerful representation of hope, resilience, and the promise of renewal.

In many ancient cultures, evergreens were used as symbols of enduring life amidst the “death” of winter. They signified the eternal cycle of life over death, light over darkness. Decorating evergreen trees and boughs with candles and other adornments during winter festivities was thought to honor the sacred power of the evergreen to sustain life even during the bleakest months. The evergreen tree became a poignant reminder that brighter days always return after winter’s sleep.

When Christianity began to spread into Northern Europe and older pagan traditions were adapted, the evergreen maintained its potent symbolism. The evergreen tree adorned with lights represented the promise of Christ and the light of the world, bringing hope and salvation during the darkest times. And so the decorating of the evergreen tree with candles and other decorations continued each winter solstice, entwining both Christian and ancient pagan imagery of life, light, and renewal amidst the winter landscape.

Candles and Light

In the darkest days of winter, light has long held an important symbolic meaning. The candle flames bring a warming glow and vitality, like a small sun in the midst of cold darkness.

The tradition of decorating trees and homes with candles dates back to antiquity and is intertwined with the ancient celebrations around the winter solstice – the shortest day and longest night of the year. Evergreens would be lit with candles to represent the promise that the days would soon grow longer again and that spring’s light and life were not far behind.

The twinkling candlelight evoked the stars in the night sky and the spirit of the heavens. It mirrored the divine light and served as a symbol of hope in the face of darkness. The illumination provided a sense of joy and festivity during an otherwise dreary time of year for agrarian societies.

Thus, the candles woven into festive greenery carried deep cultural and spiritual significance, beyond mere decoration. The light carved out spaces of warmth, community, reflection, and anticipation amidst the cold solstice.

Martin Luther and the Christmas Tree

The tradition of decorating trees with candles gained major prominence and popularity thanks to the efforts of the 16th century Lutheran reformer, Martin Luther. As the story goes, Luther was awestruck one night by the beauty of the stars twinkling amidst an evergreen tree. Wanting to recreate the magical scene for his family, he brought a small evergreen tree inside and decorated it with candles. The lit Christmas tree created a warm, festive glow, and Luther and his family would gather around it to sing carols.

Luther’s showcase of the decorated tree, along with his influence as a leader of the Protestant Reformation, helped the tradition spread rapidly throughout Germany and beyond. Followers of Luther’s teachings embraced the Christmas tree and its symbolism of light, everlasting life through Christ, and the fruits of the spirit. Within a few centuries, German immigrants had carried the practice to many parts of Europe and America.

Decorative Techniques and Materials

Decorating Christmas trees with candles and other materials has evolved significantly over time. Originally, candles were attached directly to tree branches. This was potentially dangerous but created a beautiful glowing effect when lit at night. As candlemaking techniques improved in the 18th century, decorative candle holders became popular for attaching candles to trees more safely. Colorful glass candle holders helped reflect and diffuse the candlelight.

In the late 1800s, candleholders became even more elaborate, using materials like tin, brass, silver and gold. Eventually, small lanterns and glass balls were used to hold candles on trees. This helped prevent open flames from coming in contact with pine needles and branches. Wax candles were also adapted into safer forms like beads and flat sheets that could be wrapped around branches.

With the advent of electric Christmas lights in the early 1900s, electrically illuminated glass balls and other ornaments began replacing real candles. Small light bulbs allowed people to decorate trees with lights safely. While some people still use real candles for a traditional look and ambiance, most Christmas trees today use electric lights and non-flammable decorative ornaments.

Spreading Popularity

The tradition of decorating evergreen trees with candles originated in Germany in the 16th century. However, over the next few centuries it steadily spread to become a beloved Christmas tradition in many other parts of Europe and North America.

In the early 19th century, as German immigrants settled in England, America, and other parts of Europe, they brought the tradition of candle-lit Christmas trees with them. English and American newspapers from the 1820s onward describe the growing trend of holiday trees decorated with wax tapers and sweets.

Wealthy English families were among the first to adopt the German-inspired tradition of Christmas trees in the 1830s and 1840s. Affluent Americans soon followed the trend after reading glowing accounts of candle-lit trees in England. By the late 19th century, the tradition had spread from the upper classes to become common in American and European homes.

The spreading popularity of Christmas trees was likely aided by their romantic, festive allure and by widespread admiration for Queen Victoria of England. Her marriage to the German Prince Albert brought the tradition to England, which increased its popularity and made it fashionable.

Safety Concerns

As the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with candles became more popular in the 1800s, safety concerns around open flames on dried-out, resinous evergreen trees started to arise. Back then, candles were attached to trees by melting wax or piercing the tree with metal prongs – both of which created fire hazards.

Christmas tree fires were unfortunately quite common in the 19th century. The combination of open flames, ignitable materials like wax and tree resin, dried-out trees, and leaves/pine needles covering the floor led to many devastating home fires. This dangerous but beautiful tradition caused many injuries and deaths during the holiday season.

As electric Christmas lights were invented in the early 1900s, municipalities started passing laws to prohibit real candles on Christmas trees, and most homes transitioned. Hooks for electric lights began replacing the dangerous candle holders. Although candles could still be used on artificial trees, they declined in popularity due to the convenience and increased safety of electric lights.


The tradition of decorating trees with candles has its origins in ancient winter solstice celebrations and the symbolism of using evergreens and candle light during the darkest time of the year. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, these solstice traditions were adapted and merged with Christmas celebrations. The lighting of the Christmas tree with candles held religious significance, representing Christ as the Light of the World. The tradition was popularized during the 16th century and various decorative techniques and materials were developed as it spread throughout Europe and America. While the lighting of candles on Christmas trees created a beautiful glow and ambiance, the practice also posed fire hazards. As electric Christmas lights became widely available in the 20th century, most households transitioned to using strings of electric lights rather than real candles. While the materials have changed, the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with lights continues today, representing holiday warmth, nostalgia, and the triumph of light over darkness during the winter season.

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