Published: 1-03-2010, 08:55

Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree originally hails from GERMANY. Today it is a recognized symbol of the holiday in many parts of the globe. The earliest historical reference to decorated Christmas trees in German homes dates back to the sixteenth century (see also CHRISTMAS VILLAGE; ORNAMENTS). Several theories concerning the beginning of the Christmas tree custom, however, suggest that its origins lie much further in the past.

A number of legends offer fanciful explanations for the origins of the Christmas tree. According to one, St. Boniface (c. 675-754) began the custom in the eighth century. One Christmas Eve this English missionary to the German-speaking peoples came across some pagans preparing a human sacrifice before an oak tree. He struck the oak tree a single blow with his axe, which felled the tree. Duly impressed by this miraculous feat, the people abandoned their old ways and embraced Christianity. The saint pointed to a small fir tree laying among the ruins of the oak and told them to take that as the symbol of their new faith and of the birth of the Christ child.
Legends dating back to tenth-century EUROPE tell of trees that mysteriously burst into bloom on Christmas Eve (see also GLASTONBURY THORN). Some writers suggest that this myth inspired people to bring decorated trees into their homes at Christmas time. A German legend elaborates on this theme. According to this tale, a humble woodcutter heard a knock on his door one freezing winter night. Upon opening it he discovered a shivering, poor child. The woodcutter and his wife offered the child hospitality for the night, feeding him and offering him their own warm bed close to the fire. The next morning the grateful child appeared before them, radiant and beautiful. Awareness dawned in them that their guest was in fact the Christ child (see also CHRISTKINDEL). Before departing the Christ child gave them a twig from a fir tree, declaring that it would blossom for them year after year. Unable to imagine how this could occur, they tossed the twig away. Nevertheless, it grew into a beautiful fir tree, which suddenly blossomed with golden apples and silver nuts. The miraculous blooms appeared each year at Christmas time.
Another Christian legend attributes the Christmas tree to Martin Luther (1483-1546). One Christmas Eve the great religious reformer found himself walking through the woods. The beauty of the stars shining through the branches of the fir trees deeply moved him. He cut down a small tree, brought it home with him, and covered it with lit candles, explaining to his family that its light and beauty represented Christ, the light of the world. Although this legend helped to increase the popularity of the Christmas tree it should be pointed out that the earliest known document describing a Christmas tree lit with candles was written about a century after Luther’s death.

No one can confirm the exact origin of the Christmas tree. Some writers base their explanation of the Christmas tree on the theory that in ancient times the pagan peoples of northern Europe revered trees. They propose that the venerable pagan symbol of the tree survived the transition to Christianity by attaching itself to the Christian midwinter holiday, Christmas. Little solid historical evidence exists to support this viewpoint, however. Others believe that the ancient Roman custom of decorating homes and temples with GREENERY during KALENDS survived for centuries, eventually inspiring the people of the north to decorate their homes with small evergreen trees at that time of year. Still others view the Christmas PYRAMID as the ancestor of the Christmas tree.
Finally, a number of researchers disagree with all of these argu-ments. They point out that the earliest historical records of decorated trees being used to celebrate Christmas come from the Middle Ages. Fir trees decorated with apples served as the central prop for the paradise play, a kind of folk religious drama often performed on December 24 (see also NATIVITY PLAY). These props were called PARADISE TREES, and some researchers believe they were the forerunners of the Christmas tree. The plays eventually fell out of favor with Church officials and the populace. Nevertheless, some writers believe that people from parts of France and Germany retained the custom of celebrating Christmas with a decorated tree, which eventually became known as a Christmas tree.

Early History
The earliest historical reference to Christmas trees as such dates back to sixteenth-century Germany. In 1561 an ordinance posted in Alsace declared that each burgher was allowed only one Christmas tree and that his tree could be no more than “eight shoes” in height. Apparently the custom of bringing a living tree into the home at Christmas time was so popular that deforestation was already become something of a problem. In 1605 a traveler to the city of Strasbourg described the German custom of bringing a fir tree into the drawing room at Christmas time and decorating it with apples, wafers, paper roses, gilt, and sugar ornaments. Documents from the same century also record objections to the Christmas tree custom on the part of religious reformers, who argued that it detracted from the spiritual significance of the holiday. On the whole, however, the Christmas-tree-loving Germans appear to have ignored these objections.
The Christmas pyramid found favor with many German families during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some German families preferred to decorate a pyramid rather than a Christmas tree. Other families had both in their parlors. Still other families preferred to center home celebrations around a NATIVITY SCENE. For the most part, the Nativity scene held sway in southern Germany, where Catholics were more numerous. The tree dominated in northern Germany, where more Protestants lived. By the nineteenth century the increasing appeal of the Christmas tree contributed to the decline of the Christmas pyramid.
During the nineteenth century the Christmas tree became increas-ingly popular in all parts of Germany, but also spread to other countries. Around 1840 the English monarch Queen Victoria and her German-born consort Prince Albert celebrated Christmas with a decorated tree. Although the Christmas tree was known in ENGLAND before that time, this stamp of royal approval transformed the tree into a fashionable, new addition to the English Christmas. In like manner, the German-born Princess Helene of Mecklenberg started a Christmas tree trend in FRANCE in 1837 by celebrating her first Christmas in that country with a decorated tree. Many Scandinavians adopted the Christmas tree in the mid-nineteenth century, as did many Americans, Russians, and other northern Europeans. Southern Europeans, for the most part, stuck with their traditional Nativity scenes. Indeed, the Nativity scene remains the focus of home Christmas celebrations in much of southern Europe.

The Christmas Tree Comes to America

Some writers claim that Hessian soldiers who fought on behalf of the British in the American Revolution erected the first Christmas trees on American soil. No solid historical evidence exists to back up this claim, however. Several contemporary folklorists instead claim that German immigrants, such as those of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, brought the custom with them to the United States. Occasional references to the novelty of a decorated Christmas tree are scattered throughout newspapers on the East Coast from the early 1800s. In fact, the trees were considered so exotic that some organizations set them up and then charged people money in order to view them.
By the 1840s the Christmas tree was widely known in the United States. Publication of Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree in 1845, a children’s book about the custom, helped to popularize the holiday tree. The first American Christmas trees were only a few feet tall and were displayed on tables, following the German fashion. As the size of the tree grew to accommodate an ever-increasing load of orna-ments, Americans moved the tree to a stand on the floor. Many of these early American ornaments were in fact Christmas GIFTS and treats. These might include GINGERBREAD and other cookies, pretzels, apples, lemons, oranges, raisins, nuts, figs, SUGARPLUMS, strings of cranberries or popcorn, candy, dolls, books, thimbles, scissors, mittens, STOCKINGS, shoes, paper roses, glass balls, and ornaments made of egg shells or cotton.
Families gradually began to exchange heavier, more substantial gifts. Before 1880 people usually hung their unwrapped gifts from the tree with thread or string. After that time, WRAPPING PAPER and fancy decorated boxes started to become fashionable. As Christmas presents grew too large or heavy to hang on the tree, people began to place them beneath the tree.

The Christmas Tree Becomes an American Institution

During the second half of the nineteenth century the Christmas tree cast its roots deep into American Christmas celebrations. Its presence undermined the role of the Christmas stocking as a receptacle for gifts in many homes. Christmas trees began to sprout up in school holiday celebrations. They even worked their way into churches, in spite of some initial opposition to what was perceived as a suspiciously heathen custom. Mark Carr, a logger from New York’s Cat-skill Mountains, created the first Christmas tree lot in 1851. For the price of one dollar he rented a sidewalk in NEW YORK CITY and sold cut trees to city dwellers. His business appeared to be so profitable that the owner of the sidewalk increased his rent to $100 the following year. In 1856 Franklin Pierce became the first American president to celebrate Christmas in the WHITE HOUSE with a decorated tree. As the tree became a familiar and cherished part of American Christmas celebrations, people began to make fancy ribbon and lace ornaments as well as to collect store-bought ornaments for their trees. Unlike the gifts and treats which had covered their trees in past years, these ornaments could be saved and reused the following year.
One writer estimates that by the turn of the twentieth century, about one in five American homes displayed a decorated tree at Christmas time. Many of those who could not afford to set up a tree in their homes still enjoyed community or church trees. President Theodore Roosevelt expressed early ecological concerns about the national consumption of evergreen trees at Christmas time. Around the year 1900 he discontinued the use of Christmas trees in the White House. His sons, however, unable to resist the lure of a decorated Christmas tree, smuggled an evergreen into one of their bedrooms. Roosevelt eventually changed his position on Christmas trees after one of his advisors assured him that America’s forests could survive the yearly harvest.
In the following decades Christmas trees appeared in more and more American homes. In the year 2000, 79 percent of U.S. homes displayed a Christmas tree during the holiday season. About 31 percent of American homeowners bought real Christmas trees, while 49 percent of homeowners relied instead upon artificial trees (and two percent of homes contained both a real and an artificial tree). Christmas tree growers harvest and sell about 33 million real trees annually.

Symbolic Trees
The Christmas tree has become a potent symbol of peace and goodwill. This symbolism underlies the ceremonies surrounding many public Christmas trees. President Woodrow Wilson presided over the first NATIONAL CHRISTMAS TREE ceremony on Christmas Eve in 1913. Although Wilson established the ceremony near the Capitol Building, President Calvin Coolidge moved the national Christmas tree to the vicinity of the White House. In 1923 he led the first ceremonial lighting of the national Christmas tree. This yearly ceremony has continued ever since, with the exception of the years between 1942 and 1945, when wartime blackouts prohibited the festive, outdoor lights. After the Korean War, a Christmas “pageant of peace” was attached to the lighting of the national Christmas tree, which entailed rescheduling the lighting ceremony to a date before Christmas Eve (see also NATION’S CHRISTMAS TREE).
The English, too, have a kind of national tree. Each year since 1947 the citizens of NORWAY have donated an immense evergreen tree to the people of the United Kingdom in gratitude for British aid during World War II. This tree towers over London’s Trafalgar Square during the CHRISTMAS SEASON.