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The Christmas Tree—Its Pre-Christian Origin

The Christmas Tree—Its Pre-Christian Origin

The Christmas Tree​—Its Pre-Christian Origin

IN MANY parts of the world, the evergreen Christmas tree is a well-known symbol in holiday celebrations and commerce. The religious origin of the tree runs deep and stretches far back in human history.

This is evident in Bohuslän Province on the west coast of Sweden and in the nearby province of Østfold in Norway. In those areas, more than 75,000 individual rock carvings have been found at some 5,000 different sites. Archaeologists say that many of these rock carvings were made between about 1,800 and 500 B.C.E. *

These remarkable carvings reveal something about the beliefs of people who lived a very long time before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. For example, some researchers think that in early times in areas of present-day Sweden and Norway, evergreen trees, such as spruces, were used as sacred symbols.

Why was it that people living in these far northern coastal areas of the world made rock carvings of spruce trees? Some scholars suggest it was partly because of the evident rarity of those trees during the pre-Christian times when the carvings were made. Understandably, a tree that stays permanently green, or “alive,” when other trees seemingly die in cold weather must have been somewhat of a mystery.

Trees have been symbols of life, survival, and immortality in many cultures worldwide. This fact may also help explain why tree images that clearly resemble evergreen spruces were carved into rocks in the area of Bohuslän and Østfold many centuries before that tree became a common sight there.

The book Rock Carvings in the Borderlands, published in cooperation with the Swedish National Heritage Board, says: “The images of trees in rock carvings illustrate that as early as the Bronze Age the southern Scandinavian region was part of a larger religious and cultural context that covered the whole of Europe and large parts of Asia. Religion and cosmology were adapted to people whose livelihoods were farming and animal husbandry. They largely worshipped the same gods, although the names of the gods varied.”

The Rock Carving Tour, a booklet published by the Bohusläns Museum, further explains: “It was not the everyday world the rock carvers wanted to portray. We believe that their images perhaps were a form of prayer and invocation to the gods.” The booklet adds: “Beliefs revolved around the eternal circle of life, fertility, death and re-birth.”

Describing a unique collection of symbolic art, created long before the art of writing was introduced into northern Europe, Nationalencyklopedin, the Swedish national reference encyclopedia, notes: “The marked presence of sexually charged depictions shows how important a fertility cult was in the religion of the Bronze Age people in the North.”

Evidently, customs involving evergreen trees spread and became part of life in many places. The Encyclopædia Britannica states regarding the Christmas tree: “Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity.” It did so in various rites and customs, including “the custom . . . of placing a Yule tree at an entrance or inside the house during the midwinter holidays.”

The broad way leading the evergreen tree to modern popularity was paved in 1841 when the British royal family used a decorated spruce for their Christmas celebrations. Today the Christmas tree is recognized all over the world, and the demand for countless millions of natural and artificial Christmas trees seems endless. Meanwhile, Scandinavian rock carvings provide silent testimony, literally set in stone, that the Christmas tree is not of Christian origin.


^ par. 3 Some of the Bohuslän rock-carving sites are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

[Blurb on page 12]

Rock carvings suggest that pagan worship of the evergreen tree began before the time of Christ

[Pictures on page 13]

Rock carvings that depict trees in (1) Torsbo, (2) Backa, and (3) Lökeberg, Sweden

[Credit Line]

Courtesy Stiftelsen för dokumentation av Bohusläns hällristningar