The Roots of the Christmas Tree
Plants and trees which stay green all year, such as pine, spruce, and fir trees, have been included in winter celebrations for thousands of years. Some countries believe the evergreens had the power to ward off evil spirits and sickness. Ancient civilizations thought the sun was a god and that winter meant he was sick and weak. They would celebrate the winter solstice (which falls on December 21 or 22) because it was the shortest day of the year and the longer days which followed meant the sun god was getting better. They decorated their homes with evergreen boughs to remind themselves of the coming spring.
The ancient Egyptians, who worshipped the sun god Ra, thought green palm rushes symbolized triumph over death. The Romans worshipped the god of agriculture, Saturn, with a festival called Saturnalia, during which they would decorate their temples and homes with fir trees and evergreen boughs. The Druid priests of the ancient Celts also adorned their temples with evergreen boughs, believing them to symbolize everlasting life. The Vikings of Scandinavia worshipped a sun god called Balder and considered the evergreens to be his special plant. However, the tradition of decorating a tree in Christian celebrations is thought to have begun in Germany during the sixteenth century, though Latvia and Estonia both claim to be the location of the first Christmas trees.
In addition to fir trees, early Christmas trees were also cherry or hawthorn plants that had been potted and brought inside in the hopes that they would flower at Christmas time. Some were not plants at all but rather pyramids made from wood and decorated to look like a tree. These fake trees were similar to the Paradise Trees, which represented the Garden of Eden, in medieval German Mystery Plays. The plays were performed in churches on Christmas Eve, which was considered to be Adam and Eve’s day in the early church calendars of saints. Often, the Paradise Tree was carried through the town to advertise the play.
Some stories credit the origin of the Christmas tree to St. Boniface, who left England to preach to the pagan tribes of Germany, intent on destroying a large oak tree, called the Thunder Oak, around which they were known to sacrifice small children. He allegedly arrived just in time to stop the sacrifice of a young boy by cutting down the tree with an ax. Here the tale varies, with some claiming a young fir tree suddenly grew from the roots of the oak and that St. Boniface’s followers then decorated the tree with candles, so he could see to preach to the pagans at night. Other accounts claim the fir tree was behind the oak and that Boniface told the pagans that it was a sign of endless life and that they should “gather about it, not in the wildwood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”
Yet another story from Germany tells of a forester and his family who took in a lost boy on Christmas Eve night. They awoke to find that the young boy had turned into the Christ child. He gave them a branch from a fir tree as thanks for taking him in. Since then, Christmas trees have been brought into homes to remember that night.
Sixteenth-century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, is thought to be the first person to add lights to a Christmas tree. According to the legend, he was walking through the forest on his way home one evening when he was dazzled by the sight of the stars twinkling between the branches of the trees. He was reminded of how Jesus had left the stars of heaven to come to earth on Christmas. When he got home, he wanted to recreate the scene for his family. So, he put up a Christmas tree in his home and added lighted candles to its branches. After the Protestant revolution, upper-class Protestant families would put up Christmas trees as a foil to the Catholic nativity scenes.
Americans were initially reluctant to adopt the tradition of the Christmas tree. Along with other festive Christmas traditions like caroling, it was considered by the Puritans of New England to be a pagan ritual. They felt that the celebration of Christmas should be a solemn event. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts went so far as to enact a law penalizing anyone who observed Christmas in any form other than a church service. This sentiment continued until the mid-nineteenth century when a photo of Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, standing around their Christmas tree was published in the Illustrated London News. Queen Victoria was popular in American society as well as in Britain and her endorsement led to the Christmas tree becoming a widespread American tradition.
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