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Have you bought your dangling penguins yet? Or would you prefer to hang a set of wooden snowmen? If neither sounds right for your tree you could always personalise your baubles by putting pictures of the family inside each one. Whatever you choose, please don’t think you can get away with a simple set of lights and a few strands of tinsel. That is so last century.

You could always take inspiration from that mistress of good taste, the unbelievably wealthy Tamara Ecclestone. She decorates not only the inside of her £70 million Kensington mansion but the outside too. Last year, her theme was ski-chalet. This year it’s the Nutcracker, giant toy soldiers, a reindeer, a huge tree, enormous baubles, swathes of fir branches and a life-size sleigh.

Or maybe the whole idea of a decorated tree revolts you. Perhaps, as a confirmed atheist, you want nothing to do with the celebration of the birth of a mythical Messiah and all of its sinister rituals.

In fact, though, religion is only a very small element in all that singing and carousing, gift-giving and candles and excessive feasting. As Judith Flanders sets out in her new book Christmas: A Biography, the festival is an amalgam of traditions going back to ancient civilisations long before Christianity had arrived.

These are the origins of today’s Christmas tree. The evergreen has been almost universally regarded as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration – the promise of thaw after ice, sun after snow.

Before Christianity took hold, during the celebration of the feast of Saturnalia, devout Romans would decorate their houses with clippings of evergreen shrubs – a reminder of the passing of the seasons and the coming of spring. They also decorated living trees outside with replicas of Bacchus, the fertility god. The Greeks decorated trees to honour their god Adonia who was brought back to life after being killed by a snake.

A similar practice was followed in the ancient Middle East, and was condemned as pagan by the prophet Jeremiah because the trees would be carved into the shape of the heathen gods. Meanwhile the ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with the branches of palm trees, also symbolising renewal and resurrection.

All of these predated Christianity. But Christianity has always managed to incorporate and adapt the customs of other cultures, to claim them for its own, with accompanying stories. One held that when St Boniface cut down a deciduous tree in the presence of some newly-baptised Christians it split into four and became an evergreen – a symbol of the vanquishing of paganism. Another is that Martin Luther himself was so overcome by the beauty of a winter forest that he cut down a tree, took it home and decorated it with candles.

That story might explain the emergence of the modern Christmas tree, which dates back to 16th century Germany. German immigrants brought the custom with them to America which embraced it with gusto. It was the Americans who began to install lighted trees into department stores along with elaborate street lighting ceremonies and parades.

The tradition caught on in England after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bejewelled theirs with candles, sweets, fruits and gingerbread in 1841. Charles Dickens described Christmas trees adorned with the fine-looking dolls, miniature furniture, costume jewellery, little musical instruments, toy guns, swords.

Angels, peacocks, birds and stars were used to decorate Christmas trees in Poland. Swedish ones were adorned with painted wooden decorations, animals and child figures, while Danish trees would sport flags, mobile of bells stars, snowflakes and small hearts. In Japan it was tiny fans and paper lamps, Lithuanians chose straw bird cages, stars and geometric shapes, and ornaments of painted egg shells were portrayed on Czechoslovakian trees.

You might think the Church would have been delighted with such widespread acceptance of this logo of faith. But devout Christians worried about its godless roots. When in the 1830s German settlers in Pennsylvania first set up a public tree outside a church, local worshippers were so outraged at what they saw as a sign of paganism that they forced the minister to take it down.

And that was just the beginning. Puritans actually banned Christmas in New England, and the Roman Catholic Church condemned the Christmas tree as a Protestant custom until they realised its spread was beyond their control. Oliver Cromwell preached against decorating Christmas trees on such a "sacred event" as Christmas. And even today some Christian groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, forbid Christmas trees.

Opposition to the Christmas tree used to come from the Church as a symbol of heathenism. This century, though, the link with religion is the problem. In the year 2000 in Eugene, Oregon the city manager declared a Christmas tree could not be put on city property, because it was a religious symbol that violated the separation of church and state. In 2004 in the Bellevue City Hall, their Christmas tree was called a "giving tree" to make "everybody feel welcome". The following year the city of Boston began calling their Christmas tree a "holiday tree", and the hardware chain Lowe's began labelling their trees "holiday trees" and "family trees".

The controversy still remains, especially in America, with some believing the use of the Christmas tree in public places amounts to religious discrimination. Companies including Sears, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Gap, Pet Smart, and Home Depot have all switched to using the term “holiday” in place of “Christmas” at one time or another.

Too godless, or too religious - you don’t really need to worry either way about who your Christmas tree might offend. But you’re not out of the woods yet. The latest concern is not so much about keeping alive the nativity story as about keeping the trees alive. Environmentalists disapprove of the annual butchering of all those evergreen forests. So perhaps choose an artificial one instead - as long as you re-use it. Otherwise the plastic will clog up the oceans and destroy the planet, which isn’t terribly festive.

One crucial decision remains: what is going on the top?

In the early days, horns and bells were put up to scare the evil spirits. Before that, angels and fairies were used as signs of bringing good luck. Once Jesus had taken over, nativity symbols became de rigueur; a star like the one the wise men followed, or crowns, cherubs and angels.

But could we be more inventive? A snowflake is suitably secular, as is a reindeer. Or how about a feminist statement? An enterprising company this year is offering to make models of your favourite heroine to top that tree. How about a Wonder Woman theme? Or a homage to Hillary Clinton?

Last year my husband decided to pay tribute to his very own hero. He put up a model of Sigmund Freud. But it slipped.

Christmas: A Biography is published by Picador