The Christmas tree: an ancient tradition



A local family enjoys finding and cutting their own perfect tree at Ratliff Tree Farm near Timberville, Va. Photo provided

In 1851, Mark Carr, a logger from New York’s Catskill Mountains, created the first Christmas tree lot.  In order to make a little extra money over the holiday he rented sidewalk space in New York City. For the whole season was a mere dollar. Day after day he sold his cut trees to city dwellers. Carr’s business venture was so profitable the following year the owner of the sidewalk increased Carr’s rent to $100. Placing a holiday tree inside the home expanded across the country making the Christmas tree an American tradition.

Although the Christmas tree is associated with a major Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Christ, the origin of placing a festive tree in the home is an ancient tradition and goes back centuries before the advent of Christianity. Plants and trees which remained green year round, including the coldest months of winter, came to be associated with overcoming adversities. As the darkness and coldness of winter arrived, ancient people began to decorate their homes with evergreen branches over their doors and windows believing the evergreens would protect the household from illness and misfortune.

Among the Vikings living in Scandinavian countries, winter was cold, bleak and days were short. In their areas, the sun disappeared for weeks at a time creating a perpetual night. Winds howled, snow piled up and temperatures remained below zero for days. Every community experienced the death of several villagers and many animals. It was a brutal time of the year. Yet, the Vikings found a point of hope and comfort in the evergreen tree. They noted the evergreen not only survived one harsh winter after another but continued to grow and thrive in spite of the season. Consequently, the Vikings began to cut down evergreens placing them in their homes. There, the tree would be a daily symbol of hope and a reminder that the winds would cease, and new growth would begin again.

Europeans were also intrigued by the mystery of the trees and plants which remained green throughout the winter. Many of them included the evergreen as part of their pagan religious practices. It is through those pagan customs the evergreen made its way into Christianity. There are various legends which offer explanations for the origins of the “Christmas tree” as it came to be called.

It was a brutal time of the year. Yet, the Vikings found a point of hope and comfort in the evergreen tree. They noted the evergreen not only survived harsh winters but continued to grow and thrive.

One is tied to Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483-1546). On Christmas eve, he was walking through the woods when the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of the fir trees moved him deeply. He decided to cut down a small tree and bring it home for his family. Luther covered it with lit candles and then used the tree as an object lesson to explain the faith. He taught his family that the tree, whose evergreen color never faded, was like God’s love which would never fade away no matter life’s circumstances. The lit candles were representative of Jesus Christ, who was the “light of the world.”

The earliest historical reference to a Christmas tree first appears in Germany. In 1561 at Alsace a law was passed limiting each “burgher” or resident to only one Christmas tree. The law further stipulated the tree could be no more than “eight shoes” in height. Evidently, the custom of bringing a live tree into the home was so popular that deforestation was becoming an issue.  A little later in 1605 a visitor to the city of Strasbourg was impressed by the German custom of bringing a fir tree into the home and decorating it. The traveler said German ornaments included apples, wafers, paper roses, gilt and sugar decorations.  Interestingly, some Christian religious leaders were opposed to the custom arguing the tree detracted from the real reason for the season. Their objections, however, were largely ignored by Christmas-loving Germans. From Germany the custom of a Christmas tree spread all over western Europe.

In the United States, the first Christmas trees were introduced during the American Revolution by German mercenaries fighting for the Colonial army. The concept of using a live tree at Christmas did not catch on with the early Americans and the tree returned to Germany with the mercenaries at the conclusion of the war. Around 1820 German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought the tree back and this time it caught on. By the 1840s the Christmas tree was widely known in the United States. An 1845 children’s book, “Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree,” helped further propel the popularity of the tree. The earliest American trees were short and small often displayed on tables. Americans gradually switched to larger trees placed in stands on the floor because they had an ever increasing variety of ornaments to place on them. Those early trees were decorated with gingerbread, pretzels, cookies, apples, lemons, oranges, figs, strings of cranberries or popcorn, candy, dolls, paper roses, glass balls and ornaments made of egg shells or cotton.

As the Christmas tree made its way into American homes and hearts, some clergy voiced opposition to what they declared was originally a pagan custom. However, the Christmas tree began to appear in churches during the holiday season. In 1856 Franklin Pierce became the first U.S. President to celebrate Christmas in the White House with a decorated tree. As the Christmas tree popularity expanded, President Theodore Roosevelt expressed ecological concerns over the national consumption of evergreen trees. Advisors sought to reassure the President telling him they believed America’s forests could survive the yearly harvest. Hearing the President’s concern, some companies began introducing artificial trees, a concept which would take decades to catch on.

Other presidents became involved with Christmas trees. Woodrow Wilson presided over the first national Christmas tree ceremony on Christmas Eve, 1913. The ceremony took place near the Capitol Building. Later, President Calvin Coolidge moved the national Christmas tree to the area of the White House and, in 1923, led the first ceremonial lighting of the national Christmas tree. That ceremonial lighting has become a yearly tradition with exception of the years between 1942 and 1944 when wartime blackouts prohibited the use of festive, outdoor lights.

As the Christmas tree became more and more popular across the country, concerns about ecology and environment as well as the issue of fire prevention has prompted the majority of Americans to use artificial Christmas trees. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, only 31 percent of households displayed a real Christmas tree while 49 percent use artificial. Twenty-one percent had no tree (statistics from 2002-2007).

From it’s humble beginnings as a symbol of hope and strength for the ancient Vikings, the Christmas tree has evolved to become the central symbol of the world’s most celebrated holiday. Today, the Christmas tree is displayed during the holiday in stores, malls, churches, businesses, on streets, in yards and in millions of homes.

VICTOR M. PARACHIN is a freelance writer from Oklahoma.


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