The origins of decorating the Christmas tree

Martin Luther started the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree.

Christmas trees make me smile. My husband and I had ours up and decorated the week after Thanksgiving, and it will brighten our living room until the weekend after the New Year. But I honestly had no idea where the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas first originated.

In the following excerpt from a World Vision radio broadcast that first aired on December 13, 1959, my father shared this wonderful story that gives new meaning to an old tradition.

I have heard people say that having a Christmas tree is giving in to the commercialism of the season. But have you ever asked yourself where the tradition started?

One of our World Vision staff writers, Dorothy Haskins, has written a children’s book called “Luther’s Children Celebrate Christmas.” She did a lot of research on this subject for her book, and incredibly, she tells us that Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation in the 1600s, is actually credited with starting the custom of decorating a tree for Christmas.

Martin Luther had six children: Hans, Elizabeth, Magdalene, Martin, Paul, and Margaret. He loved his children and wanted to do something to brighten the holiday season, and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in a different way for them. The beauty of the evergreen trees that were near his home often delighted his heart when he walked through the snow in the starlight. The little trees stood there bravely, keeping green while everything else around them went dry and drab and lifeless.

So one day he cut one down and brought it into the house, thinking to bring some of its beauty into his home to fight against the bleakness of the winter. He wanted it to stand there “evergreen” as a reminder to his children that when the world was at its bleakest moment — sad and helpless and covered with a weight of sin — God sent his Son, everlasting life itself, to bring hope in the midst the dark and chill.

He explained to his children that the tree is green in the winter like our faith in Christ. It stays fresh even in a time of trouble. Our faith in Christ stays green even in sorrow. It stays alive even in the midst of despair.

Then Martin Luther put candles on the tree, saying, “The candles remind us of the star that led Wise Men to the Christ child.” That was probably the first decorated tree.

When all was done, he sat his children down and taught them a new carol he had written. …


At this point in the program, my Dad invited our World Vision quartet, The Visionaires, to sing the carol. But I will have to settle for sharing the words:

Good news from heaven the angels bring.
 Glad tidings to the earth they sing. To us this day a child is born. To crown us with the joy of heaven.

As you decorate your tree this year, remember the story of the first Christmas tree, and let your children know that the little evergreen is more than an “umbrella” for the presents they will find under its boughs. It is a symbol of the everlasting love of God, “sent into a bleak world in the moment of its utmost darkness, that through Jesus you and I might have life everlasting.”

May you have a blessed and joyous Christmas!

One of Marilee Pierce Dunker’s greatest joys is watching people come to a child sponsorship table to search for the little face that touches their heart.
©2013 World Vision/photo by Adam Arkin

Marilee Pierce Dunker travels the world as an ambassador for World Vision, the organization her father, Bob Pierce, founded in 1950. Like he did, she shares stories, pictures, and personal reflections, bearing witness to the extraordinary ways God is using his people to share the gospel and care for the poor.

Visit World Vision’s Speakers Bureau site to request Marilee or another World Vision speaker to present at your upcoming event.

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