Holiday History: Why do we put stars, angels on top of Christmas trees?

Photo: Wilson Hui /Flickr Commons

(MEDIA GENERAL) — Decorating a Christmas tree ahead of the holidays is a family tradition in many households.

Memories come to life while unpacking ornaments, streaming lights and hanging tinsel on the tree.

Young children vie for the honor to be thrust into the air to nestle an ornament into the tree’s crown. A star or an angel is the most common Christmas tree-topper—but why?

Originally, the infant Jesus adorned the top of Christmas trees. However, this trend later evolved to a star or an angel, which are both significant Christian symbols in the Nativity of Jesus.

The Star of Bethlehem

The Star of Bethlehem, also referred to as the ‘Christmas Star,’ guided the wise men, or Magi, to the birthplace of Jesus in the Christian story of Jesus of Nazareth’s birth.

Wise men or wise kings travel on camels with entourage across the deserts to find the savior, moon, desert, Holy Bible, Etching, 1885 (Wonderlane/Flickr Commons)
Wise men or wise kings travel on camels with entourage across the deserts to find the savior, moon, desert, Holy Bible, Etching, 1885 (Wonderlane/Flickr Commons)

The Star of Bethlehem, a five-pointed star, is unique in that it is only referenced in the Gospel of Matthew’s nativity story. The star signifies the birth of Christ (or Messiah).

Astrology also factored heavily into the Bible. Stars, moons, comets and galaxies were considered heavenly bodies interpreted as signs from God.

The Angel Gabriel

The world ‘angel’ is derived from the Greek word angelosmeaning “messenger.” Angels act as representatives of God and appear in both the Old and New Testament of the Holy Biible, delivering news or foretelling of the future.

Christmas tree at Windsor Castle (Library of Congress)
“Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” (1848) (Library of Congress)

The angel Gabriel visited Mary to inform her that she was to give birth to the Son of God. Gabriel is a prominent figure in the Bible, Judaism and Islam.

In the nativity story, an angel also appeared to group of shepherds keeping watching their flocks, announcing the birth of Jesus. The Star of Bethlehem then guided them to the infant.

Angels are also viewed as protectors. Using angel tree-toppers, early Christians also used them to ward off evil spirits from their homes.

The growing popularity of an angel tree-topper traces back to the Victorian Era.

In 1848, the Illustrated London News published the drawing “Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” on it’s cover. In it, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, their children and the queen’s mother stood around a Christmas tree with an angel perched on top.

The drawing set the precedent popularizing angel-toppers and Christmas trees in Great Britain and the United States.