A Christmas tree is a decorated tree, usually an evergreen conifer such as spruce, pine, or fir associated with the celebration of Christmas. An artificial Christmas tree, usually made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is a man-made replication of such a tree and is often used instead of a live tree in order to retain the Christmas spirit and decorations without the care and maintenance of a cut tree.
The tree was traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts, or other foods. In the 18th century, it began to be illuminated by candles which were ultimately replaced by Christmas lights after the advent of electrification. Today, there are a wide variety of traditional ornaments, such as garland, tinsel, and candy canes. An angel or star might be placed at the top of the tree to represent the angel Gabriel or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
The custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany (where it is today called Weihnachtsbaum or Christbaum or "Tannenbaum") with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly 15th century, in which "devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes." Christmas trees were hung in St. George's Church, Sélestat since 1521. It acquired popularity beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century. The Christmas tree has also been known as the "Yule-tree", especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.
While it is clear that the modern Christmas tree originated during the Renaissance of early modern Germany, there are a number of speculative theories as to its ultimate origin. Its 16th-century origins are sometimes associated with Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther who is said to have first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree.
It is frequently traced to the symbolism of trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar's Oak and the popularized story of Saint Boniface and the conversion of the German pagans, in which Saint Boniface cuts down an oak tree that the German pagans worshipped, and replaces it with an evergreen tree, telling them about how its triangular shape reminds humanity of the Trinity and how it points to heaven.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime."
Alternatively, it is identified with the "tree of paradise" of medieval mystery plays that were given on 24 December, the commemoration and name day of Adam and Eve in various countries. In such plays, a tree decorated with apples (to represent the forbidden fruit) and wafers (to represent the Eucharist and redemption) was used as a setting for the play. Like the Christmas crib, the Paradise tree was later placed in homes. The apples were replaced by round objects such as shiny red balls.