Christmas tree traditions past and present
December 17, 2007
Christmas trees bring memories of the pungent smell of conifer, lights, gifts, family gatherings, and the Nativity. They are symbolic of Christmas, but the tradition has had its problems.
Folk stories provide clues of the origin of the tradition, but they vary widely. According to one legend, St. Boniface, the English missionary monk who brought Christianity to Germany around A.D. 700, interrupted a pagan ceremony that was taking place beneath an oak tree. Boniface felled the oak with one blow and pointed to an evergreen tree growing in the roots of the oak, telling the people to take it into their homes, saying it was the sign of the Christ Child who brought eternal life.
Martin Luther is also credited with originating the Christmas tree. One evening, as he was trudging home through the snow, Luther noticed how the moon and starlight sparkled through the ice-covered branches of an evergreen.
The sight reminded him how the “glory of the Lord shone round about the shepherds: in the story of the Christ Child’s birth.” Thus inspired, the Reformer chopped down the tree, dragged it home, set it up and trimmed it with candles, nuts, and fruits.
Some say the origins of the Christmas tree go even farther back in time, to pre-Christian celebrations associated with the winter solstice. People saw something mystical in plants that remained green or bore berries even in the dark season of winter.
For cultures across the Mediterranean, evergreens symbolized life’s triumph over death. The Egyptians treasured and worshipped evergreens, like the palm, bringing the green leaves into their homes at the winter solstice. Romans decorated their houses with greens and lights, and exchanged gifts during Saturnalia, their winter solstice festival.
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The Scandinavians honored woodland spirits ” whom they believed to inhabit trees ” by hanging the trees with ribbons and brightly colored objects during the winter solstice. Druids, the Celtic priests, used evergreens during their solstice rituals. For the Druids, holly and mistletoe were symbols of eternal life. They placed evergreen branches (wreaths) over doorways to guard against evil spirits.
During the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their door to symbolize faith that spring was imminent. Single “guardian trees” are still planted alongside homes in Greenland by people of Scandinavian ancestry.
Transforming the evergreen tree into a Christian symbol, was neither immediate nor easy. The first written records of a decorated tree comes from Riga, Latvia, in 1510 when local merchants decorated a tree with artificial roses, considered to be a symbol for the Virgin Mary.
In the 16th Century, John Calvin objected to celebrating Christmas and Easter because he felt such celebrations promoted irreligious frivolity. In England, the Puritans were influenced by Calvin and forbade the observance of Christmas. At the same time, Germany was establishing Christmas tree decorating as we know it.
It was not until the Victorian reign that Christmas tree decorating “arrived” to stay as a tradition in England, thanks to the influence of Prince Albert, who was born in Germany.
Given its Puritan roots from England, America was slow to adopt such signs of frivolity, such as Christmas tree decorating. However, the influx of German immigrants in the 19th century diluted this anti-tree decoration sentiment.
The tradition of using small candles to light up the Christmas tree probably dates back to Germany. In 1882, the first Christmas tree was lit by the use of electricity just thee years after the incandescent light bulb was invented. Edward Johnson, associate and friend of Edison, decorated a tree with a string of 80 small electric light bulbs, but it would take decades for affordable lighting to become available for most Americans.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), trees began to be sold commercially in the United States about 1851, with trees taken randomly from forests. By the 1900s the natural supply of evergreens began to be decimated due to over- harvesting.
Theodore Roosevelt tried to stop the practice of having Christmas trees out of concern, but was persuaded, if done properly forests were not harmed. The first Christmas tree farm was started in 1901, and today, almost all trees come from Christmas tree plantations.
Around 1883, Sears, Roebuck & Company began offering the first artificial Christmas trees. Today, most artificial trees are produced in China, but may contain lead that emits dangerous dust. Also, artificial trees will not break down readily when recycled.
According to the NCTA, there are approximately 500,000 acres of Christmas trees growing at any given time in the United States supplying enough oxygen for nine million people each day. Real Christmas trees also provide many other environmental and economic benefits including being recycled as mulch and wildlife habitat.
It appears that Christmas trees are again involved in controversy. Most of us will enjoy a Christmas tree again this year, but we may each face a decision. Will we have a tree from nature or resort to an artificial tree?