If there is one tradition that those of us celebrating Christmas adhere to, it is most likely the putting up and decorating of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree stands as one of the most beautiful symbols of Christmas. It glows as the centerpiece of our homes where we entertain family and friends during the holidays, and our children gather at its base, guessing what could be inside each wrapped gift that lies beneath its boughs.
Much like the ritual of carving a Jack-o’-Lantern on Halloween, we put the Christmas tree up each year possibly without knowing where it comes from, or what its original meaning is. From a rich history and a chest full of fables, we reach back thousands of years to unearth the story of the Christmas tree, a past filled with both love and disdain.
Bringing plants and trees that remain green all year into homes has long been a part of a tradition during the winter season. Thousands of years ago evergreen branches were hung over doorways and windows during winter to remind people that the liveliness of summer would soon be around the corner. The ancient Egyptians worshiped Ra, a god who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere on December 21 or 22, it was said that Ra began to recover from an illness. Egyptians would then fill their homes in celebration with green palm fronds which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death. Early Romans also marked the Winter Solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the God of Agriculture. The feast meant that soon orchards and farms would be green and fruitful. Along with the festivities they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs and small bits of metal.
But the traditional decorated Christmas tree as we all know it originated in Germany in the 16th Century. Devout Christians built pyramid like structures out of wood and decorated them with candles and evergreen branches. It is said that the pyramid like shape and triangular form of the wooden tree, which would soon become the fir tree, symbolized the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One myth states that Martin Luther, the 16th Century Protestant Reformer, was the first to add lighted candles to the tree. One night while walking home, developing a sermon in his head, he was mesmerized by the bright stars above twinkling down through the evergreen trees. Inspired to recapture this scene for his family, he brought a tree inside his home and wired its branches with lit candles.
So how about the history of the Christmas tree in our country? 19th Century American’s found the Christmas tree strange. The first record of one being on display in the 1830s was by the German settlers in Pennsylvania and was not accepted by most Americans. The tree was simply seen as a symbol of Paganism. Christmas was sacred to the New England Puritans and leaders tried hard to stamp out any “mockery” of this sacred event. Laws were even passed that penalized anyone who did anything on December 25 that wasn’t a church related activity or gesture. People were fined for hanging decorations. Can you imagine Christmas without decorations? It’s hard to visualize in our modern times!
But in 1846, an image of England’s popular Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, was sketched in the Illustrated London News standing around a Christmas tree with their family. What was popular in the Royal court soon became popular in the mainstream, especially with the fashion forward East-Coast American Society. Thus, the decorated tree entered the landscape of an American Christmas.
By the 1890s ornaments were arriving into America from Germany and Christmas trees were being commercially sold. It was a status symbol at this time to have glass ornaments on the tree. In the shanty towns of the American West, it was not easy to come by imported decorations. People made their own by piercing tin to create lanterns that held candles and the light from the fire would shine through the holes. By the early 20th century the Christmas tree had caught on everywhere and Americans were decorating their trees with homemade ornaments and popcorn garland interlaced with berries and nuts.
With the invention of electricity, Thomas Edison and Edward Johnson were the first to create a strand of Christmas lights. This meant that the trees could glow for days on end and town squares began erecting their own community trees. New York City was the first city to erect its own tree in 1912. These community trees that stand at the center of small towns and cities have since become symbols of unification, and have lifted moral during difficult times.
As another Christmas season arrives, so does the arrival of the fresh cut trees. I love bringing a live Christmas tree into the home and watching my daughter unwrap each ornament out of the boxes from the attic, reliving the magic and excitement of each decoration year after year. The ornaments are like a family album hung on the tree with decorations from our travels, ornaments from our childhoods and handmade baubles from family and friends. With the Christmas tree up and decorated, it is the welcome light in my home that this beautiful, joyous season is here.
What does putting up the Christmas tree mean to you and your family? Buchanan’s has some of the best trees to select from in the Houston area. Stop by today and let one of our employee’s help you pick out the perfect one. Let the decorating and celebrating begin!