The Origin of the Christmas Tree

When you stop and think about it, it is really weird that every year, millions of Americans pay good money for perfectly healthy evergreen trees that have been cut down in the prime of their lives, with the intent of placing those trees in their living rooms in order to celebrate either the birth of Christ or, alternatively, the annual breaking and entering of millions of households by a fat man who watches children while they sleep. It all depends on your religious persuasion of course.  At any rate, a lot of Americans, indeed a lot of people in many countries around the world, put trees in their living rooms every December? What's the deal with that?  When and where did this tradition start?

People in Europe have been putting evergreen boughs in their homes since well before they could even write.  Many of the ancient pagans in Europe believed the sun-god became sick in the winter, and that was the reason for all the darkness and coldness of winter.  Around the Winter Solstice (the day the sun shines the least amount of time during the entire year) it became common practice for people to hang the boughs of evergreen trees and bushes in their windows and doors to celebrate the sun-god becoming healthier after the Solstice.  The boughs reminded them that the sun would shine again.  They served as a sign of hope.

Fast forward to the 16th Century Germany and we have the birth of the tradition of bringing entire trees into the house for decoration.  Legend has it that the man who started the tradition was none other than Martin Luther (as in the Martin Luther).

Wrong "The Martin Luther."

According to legend, the protestant reformer was out walking while composing a sermon one winter's night when he saw the stars twinkling through the boughs of some evergreen trees.  The beauty was so affecting, he cut down a tree, placed it in his house and placed candles on it to recreate the scene for his family.  I probably would have just said, "Hey, I saw the stars through the branches of some trees and it looked pretty darn cool," but this is the man who took on the entire Catholic church pretty much single-handedly because he felt like you shouldn't have to pay money, or be physically punished to have your sins forgiven by God, so it would make total sense for him to go the extra mile and bring a tree home to his family, as opposed to simply describing the beauty to them.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

In actuality the tradition of the Christmas more likely came from the German people combining two older traditions.  One involved bringing trees into the home and decorating them with apples to represent the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  The other tradition, known as The Christmas Light, involved a small pyramid structure, usually made of would which was decorated with glass balls and tinsel with a candle placed at the top.  This was meant to represent the light of Jesus Christ.  

Over the years the two traditions were likely combined by the German People.  By the 18th century the practice of placing candles, glass ornaments and apples in a fir tree within the home became established.  Any devout Christian will undoubtedly see the poetry of combining an item that represents the Tree of Knowledge (the perceived source of Man's Fall) with an item that represents the Light of Christ (the perceived source of Man's Redemption).  

The practice made its way to England in the 1800s thanks to the fact that Queen Victoria was married to the German Prince Albert.  The practice was adopted by the royal family, and thus mimicked but the country as a whole.  

It took a bit longer for the practice to become well-established in America.  This is because of our Puritan ancestors.  They abhorred the practice of having anything as frivolous and unholy as a decorated fir tree in the home or public during the holy Christmas holiday.  Why?  Because puritans hate fun.  I mean look at this guy:

Does it look like he's having fun?  Of course not.  You could look forward to this kind of treatment, plus a hefty fine if you were found with evergreen boughs decking your halls during Christmas.  The Puritan austerity meant that Americans would not have trees in their living rooms until the end of the 19th Century after the great influx of German and Irish immigrants.  Thanks, you belt-buckle hat jerks. 

At any rate by the middle of the 20th Century the candles in Christmas trees was replaced with lights, because it turns out, open flames and trees are actually not a terribly good mix.  

Just ask Bart Simpson

Today people put up Christmas trees with little thought given to the long history, or utter weirdness behind the practice.  Now you can have real trees, flocked trees, plastic trees, pre-lit trees and even upside-down trees.  When you look at the tree in your living room, or the trees that line shop windows all through December (well, now it's more like part of October, all of November and all of December) just remember there is a long history of people putting evergreen trees or parts of evergreen trees in their homes and shops that goes further back than the invention of writing itself.  Remember that for the pagans of ancient history and the Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries the evergreen represented hope.  

Whether or not you observe Christmas from a strictly secular or strictly religious point of view, I really do wish that you see hope when you look at your tree, and not just the hope that Santa will bring you a PS4 this year (though, Santa if you are reading this, I'm just saying a PS4 wouldn't suck).  At the risk of sounding all mushy and über cliche, I hope that you can find renewed hope in humankind as a whole.  Hope that we can overcome our bad habits and become the best that we can be.  Because that's what Christmas is all about.  

And Santa bringing me a PS4.  It's also definitely about Santa Claus putting a PS4 under my hope tree.  

 

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