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Did Lutherans invent the Christmas tree?

Dear Answer Man, on the radio Monday morning I heard that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan tradition, and that it only became a Christian thing about 500 years ago with Martin Luther. Of course, this was on public radio and probably had something to do with the war on Christmas, but what's the truth?

Martin Luther gets credit for launching the Reformation and other religious innovations, but I can't find a lot of evidence that he invented the Christmas tree . To be fair, I heard the same comment on public radio yesterday, and it just referred to the Teutonic origins of the tree tradition and that Luther helped popularize it in Germany.

You can choose your own sources on this one, but according to many of them, the first evidence of decorating a coniferous tree at Christmas time dates from the 15th century in the Baltic area of northern Europe. Whether it began as a pagan tradition is impossible to trace; some say it was a wintertime tradition that predates Christ. Another common explanation is that it's related to the "Paradise tree," a feature of medieval mystery plays in central Europe.

There's no doubt that some church leaders battled over the tradition of the tree — an opening salvo in the current war on Christmas, perhaps. Both the Catholics, with St. Boniface in the 8th century and the Lutherans in the 16th, claim some ownership of the tradition. Regardless, within about 150 years of Luther, the tree was established as a Christmas tradition throughout the Upper Rhineland of Germany, and from there it's gone 'round the world.

FYI, just about all sources agree that the first artificial Christmas tree came from Germany in the 19th century. Among the earliest U.S.-made artificial trees was a version fashioned from wire brushes in the 1930s, and later manufactured in Manitowoc, Wis.

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