by Gerald Boerner
“Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind.”
— Mary Ellen Chase
“There has been only one Christmas – the rest are anniversaries.”
— W.J. Cameron
“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”
— Norman Vincent Peale
“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.”
— Roy L. Smith
“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”
— Burton Hillis
“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.”
— Larry Wilde, The Merry Book of Christmas
“Thus saith the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen…For the customs of the people are vain; for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”
— Jeremiah 10:2-6
“I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays – let them overtake me unexpectedly – waking up some find morning and suddenly saying to myself: ‘Why, this is Christmas Day!’ ”
— David Grayson
Traditions: The Christmas Tree, Part 1
The Christmas tree is a decorated evergreen coniferous tree, real or artificial, and a tradition associated with the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas tree is often brought into a home, but can also be used in the open, and can be decorated with Christmas lights (originally candles), ornaments, garlands and tinsel during the days around Christmas. An angel or star is often placed at the top of the tree, representing the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
The ancient pagans, Druids, Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews celebrated the Winter Solstice, (Dec. 21st), the day of the year that the Sun begins its ascent in the sky thereby ushering a fertile time of planting and bountiful harvests. Hence, the evergreen tree represented eternal life and the promise of replenishment during the cold winter solstice. Apples and other fruit were hung upon the tree to represent the plentiful food to come. Candles were lighted to symbolize the warmth and brightness of the sun. While the Christmas tree is generally associated with Christ, it predates this religious figure by many centuries. In the Bible, Jeremiah the prophet admonishes those who dare to erect such a pagan artifact: "Thus saith the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen…For the customs of the people are vain; for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." (Jeremiah 10:2-6)
Later on in history Germans hung wafers on the tree along with the apples to represent the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Later on in the Victorian era, the apples were replaced by red glass balls and candles and the representation signified both Adam and Eve along with the fire of life. Moreover, the Christmas tree was also used to scare away evil forces for the new year. (Christmas tree. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 17, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online)
After the beginning of the New Year, January 1, the Pagans would take the chopped decorated Christmas tree down and burn the "Yule" log in remembrance of the past year. They would rejoice in song and dance for the goals that have been completed and in jubilation for the coming of the Spring and life. Furthermore, New Year’s resolutions were constructed at a later date from the Pagans setting of the goals. (Spirit of the Witch. (1998). Scott Cunningham).
The fir tree has a long association with Christianity, it began in Germany almost 1,000 years ago when St Boniface, who converted the German people to Christianity, was said to have come across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. In anger, St Boniface is said to have cut down the oak tree and to his amazement a young fir tree sprung up from the roots of the oak tree. St Boniface took this as a sign of the Christian faith. But it was not until the 16th century that fir trees were brought indoors at Christmas time.
A Christmas tree from 1900.
The custom of erecting a Christmas Tree can be traced to 16th century Northern Germany [contested], though neither an inventor nor a single town can be identified as the sole origin for the tradition. The tradition spread rapidly throughout Germany and abroad. "It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, that it spread rapidly and grew into a general German custom, which was soon accepted also by the Slavic people of Eastern Europe…"
In the Cathedral of Strasbourg in 1539, the church record mentions the erection of a Christmas tree. In that period, the guilds started erecting Christmas trees in front of their guildhalls: Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann (Marburg professor of European ethnology) found a Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 which reports how a small tree was decorated with "apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers" and erected in the guild-house, for the benefit of the guild members’ children, who collected the dainties on Christmas Day. Another early reference is from Basel, where the tailor apprentices carried around town a tree decorated with apples and cheese in 1597.
False claims about the first Christmas tree are made in Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia. Such claims are still routinely quoted in tourist guides, but they are refuted by Estonian historian Anu Mand and Latvian historian Gustavs Strenga. In both cities there is a documented tradition of German trader society Schwarzhäupter to burn a tree on Ash Wednesday (1510 in Riga, and 1441 in Tallinn), but it was burning rather than decorating a tree, and the tradition was not related to Christmas.
In the Chaldean custom, Tammuz, son of the sun god Nimrod and the virgin mother Semiramus, was known as Zero-Ashta, "The seed of the woman," and also Ignigena, or "born of the fire". At the time of the winter solstice, the past sun god would die, his branches stripped from him – and one piece, the seed, would enter the fire on "Mother-night" as a log. The next morning, the new triumphant sun god was born from the fire as a tree, the "Branch of God", who was celebrated for bringing divine gifts to men.
"In Egypt that tree was the palm-tree; in Rome it was the fir; the palm-tree denoting the Pagan Messiah, as Baal-Tamar, the fir referring to him as Baal-Berith. The mother of Adonis (Dionysus, Tammuz), the Sun-God and great mediatorial divinity, was mystically said to have been changed into a tree, and when in that state to have brought forth her divine son. If the mother was a tree, the son must have been recognized as the ‘Man the branch’."
— Hislop, The Two Babylons.
18th and 19th century
By the early 18th century, the custom had become common in towns of the upper Rhineland, but it had not yet spread to rural areas. Wax candles are attested from the late 18th century. The Christmas tree remained confined to the upper Rhineland for a relatively long time. It was regarded as a Protestant custom by the Roman Catholic majority along the lower Rhine and was spread there only by Prussian officials who were moved there in the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Just like Christmas (Germanic Yuletide), the Christmas tree was more or less accepted by the Roman Catholic Church because it could not prevent its use.
In the early 19th century, the custom became popular among the nobility and spread to royal courts as far as Russia. Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg introduced the Christmas tree to Vienna in 1816, and the custom spread across Austria in the following years. In France, the first Christmas tree was introduced in 1840 by the duchesse d’Orléans.
The Queen’s Christmas tree at
Windsor Castle, 1848. Republished
in Godey’s Lady’s Book,
Philadelphia December, 1850.
Victoria’s crown, Prince Albert’s
In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced in the time of the personal union with Hanover, by George III’s Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in early 1800s, but the custom hadn’t yet spread much beyond the royal family. Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with the custom. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote, "After dinner…we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room…There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.." After her marriage to her German cousin Prince Albert, by 1841 the custom became even more widespread throughout Britain. In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: "I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be".
A woodcut of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, initially published in the Illustrated London News December 1848, was copied in the United States at Christmas 1850, in Godey’s Lady’s Book (illustration, left). Godey’s copied it exactly, except removed the Queens crown, and Prince Alberts moustache, to remake the engraving into an American scene. The republished Godey’s image in 1850, the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America, Art historian Karal Ann Marling called Prince Albert and Queen Victoria shorn of their royal trappings; "the first influential American Christmas tree". The book containing the image of the family surrounding a decorated tree, folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states; "In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850-60 than Godey’s Lady’s Book". The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.
Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country’s first Christmas tree: Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, while the "First Christmas Tree in America" is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816. In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821—leading Lancaster to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Other accounts credit Charles Follen, a German immigrant to Boston, for being the first to introduce to America the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, is the first to popularise the practice of decorating a tree with candy canes.
In 1847, Imgard cut a blue spruce tree from a woods outside town, had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments and candy canes. The National Confectioners’ Association officially recognises Imgard as the first ever to put candy canes on a Christmas tree; the canes were all-white, with no red stripes. Imgard is buried in the Wooster Cemetery, and every year, a large pine tree above his grave is lit with Christmas lights. German immigrant, Charles Minnegerode, accepted a position as a professor of humanities at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in 1842, where he taught Latin and Greek. Entering into the social life of the Virginia Tidewater, Minnigerode introduced the German custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas at the home of law professor St. George Tucker, one of many influences that prompted Americans to adopt the practice at about that time.
Many cities, towns, and department stores put up public Christmas trees outdoors, such as the Rich’s Great Tree in Atlanta, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City and the large Christmas tree at Victoria Square in Adelaide. During most of the 1970s and 1980s, the largest Christmas tree in the world was put up every year on the property of The National Enquirer in Lantana, Florida. This tradition grew into one of the most spectacular and celebrated events in the history of southern Florida, but was discontinued on the death of the paper’s founder in the late 1980s.
Rockefeller Center tree
In some cities, a Festival of Trees is organised around the decoration and display of multiple trees as charity events. In some cases the trees represent special commemorative gifts, such as in Trafalgar Square in London, where the City of Oslo, Norway presents a tree to the people of London as a token of appreciation for the British support of Norwegian resistance during the Second World War; in Boston, where the tree is a gift from the province of Nova Scotia, in thanks for rapid deployment of supplies and rescuers to the 1917 ammunition ship explosion that leveled the city of Halifax; and in Newcastle upon Tyne, where the 15 m-tall main civic Christmas tree is an annual gift from the city of Bergen, Norway, in thanks for the part played by soldiers from Newcastle in liberating Bergen from Nazi occupation. Norway also annually gifts a Christmas tree to Washington D.C. as a symbol of friendship between Norway and the US and as an expression of gratitude from Norway for the help received from the US during World War II.
The United States’ National Christmas Tree is lit each year on the South Lawn of the White House. Today, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree is part of what has become a major holiday event at the White House. President Jimmy Carter lit only the crowning star atop the Tree in 1979 in honor of the Americans being held hostage in Iran. The same was true in 1980, except the tree was fully lit for 417 seconds, one second for each day the hostages had been in captivity.
The term Charlie Brown Christmas tree is used in the United States and Canada to describe any poor-looking or malformed little tree. Some tree buyers intentionally adopt such trees, feeling sympathetic to their plights. The term comes from the appearance of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree in the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas.
In New Zealand, Pōhutukawa trees are described as "natural Christmas trees", as they bloom at Christmas time, and look like Christmas trees with their red flowers and green foliage.
New Year tree decoration depicting cosmonaut (USSR, 1960s)
In Russia, the Christmas tree was banned shortly after the October Revolution but then reinstated as a New-year fir-tree (Новогодняя ёлка) in 1935. It became a fully secular icon of the New year holiday, e.g. the crowning star was regarded not as a symbol of Bethlehem Star, but as the Red Star. Decorations, such as figurines of airplanes, bicycles, space rockets, cosmonauts, and characters of Russian fairy tales, were produced. This tradition persists after the fall of the USSR, with the New Year holiday out weighting the Christmas (7 January) for a wide majority of Russians.
Both setting up and taking down a Christmas tree are associated with specific dates. Traditionally, Christmas trees were not brought in and decorated until Christmas Eve (24 December) or, in the traditions celebrating Christmas Eve rather than first of day of Christmas, the 23 December, and then removed the day after twelfth night (6 January); to have a tree up before or after these dates was even considered bad luck. Modern commercialization of Christmas has resulted in trees being put up much earlier; in shops often as early as late October — in the UK, Selfridges’s Christmas department is up by early September, complete with Christmas trees, and in New York City, street Christmas tree vendors set up their stands shortly after Thanksgiving. Some households in the U.S. do not put up the tree until the second week of December, and leave it up until the 6th of January (Epiphany).
Christmas trees lit by
In Germany, traditionally the tree is put up on the 24th of December and taken down on the 7th of January, though many start one or two weeks earlier, and in Roman Catholic homes the tree may be kept until late January. In Australia, the Christmas tree is usually put up on the 1st of December, which occurs about a week before the school summer holidays; except for South Australia, where most people put up their tree after the Adelaide Credit Union Christmas Pageants in early December. Some traditions suggest that Christmas trees may be kept up until no later than the 2nd of February, the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Candlemas), when the Christmas season effectively closes. Superstitions say it’s a bad sign if Christmas greenery is not removed by Candle mas Eve.
[Tomorrow we will continue our look at the traditions
associated with the Christmas Tree.]
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
The Christmas Tree can be found at…