Monday, December 20, 2010

Origin of the Christmas Tree

Popular legend says Martin Luther began the Christmas tree tradition. The story tells us that around 1500, on Christmas Eve, he was walking through snow-covered woods and saw a beautiful group of small evergreens. The snow-dusted branches shone in the moonlight. Impressed by its beauty and light, he hurried home where he set up a small fir and decorated it with candles, lit in honor of Christ's birth.

Although some Christians claim the symbols of the Christmas tree originated with their faith, history tells us these symbols may actually have the origins in the belief of ancient peoples. Norse, Romans, Egyptians--all believed the sun was a god and that winter came every year because their god sickened and weakened. Thus, they celebrated the winter solstice because from that day forward, the sun god would begin to get well. The use of evergreens in their celebrations reminded them of the new life to be found in the coming days.

Martin Luther aside, the earliest written record of an evergreen Christmas tree was in the 1500s in Germany. It was then that during November's feast of Yule celebration, Yule trees were first planted in pots and brought into German homes.

It wasn't until the 11th century European religious plays (called "mystery plays") came came into being that trees became more popularly accepted. Performed outdoors and in churches, the most popular mystery play was the "Paradise Play" which told the story of Adam and Eve. The only prop was the "Paradise tree" which was typically a fir, adorned with apples. During the play, Eve would take the apple, eat of it and pass it to Adam.

In the 15th century, "immoral" behavior crept into these plays and they were forbidden by the Church. However, by that time, people had already begun the tradition of putting their own Paradise trees in their homes on December 24, the beast day of Adam and Eve. The tree was decorated with apples as the fruit of sin, and with homemade wafers, representing the fruit of life. In later years, these direct symbolic connections to the Christian faith became diluted as decorations expanded to include candy and sweets.

By the mid-1600s, the use and decoration of Christmas trees had spread throughout Europe, with decorations to include paper roses, apples, communion wafers, gold, foil, sweets, and dolls. It is at this time that the use of candles is first mentioned.

The Christmas tree, in the form of the "Paradise Tree," came to America as Germans immigrated to western Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Puritans banned Christmas itself in New England and in 1851, a Cleveland minister almost lost his job for allowing a tree in his church.

In the mid-1800s, the Christmas tree arrived with style in England as the English queen, Victoria, visited relatives in Germany, where she fell in love with Prince Albert, whom she married. Returning to England, Prince Albert continued the Christmas tree tradition and decorated it with fine, German hand-blown glass ornaments. Impressed English citizens began putting them up in their homes as well.

In the early 20th century, ornaments included ore than apples as nuts, cookies, popcorn, and berries became popular. With electricity came lights, and Christmas trees began appearing in town squares.

It was in 1851 that a farmer named Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds piled with trees into New York City, selling them in two days. And so the Christmas tree market was born. By 1900, one in five Americans had a tree, and during the depression when nurseries were unable to sell evergreens for landscaping, they cut and sold them as Christmas trees.

Despite the various stories that abound regarding the origin of the Christmas tree, its evolution can be traced from ancient times and today it remains as one of the most popular and pervasive holiday traditions in the world.


widdershins said...

In just about all of the religious myths that have flowed down the ages to us, there's always been a tree somewhere in there... Actually I can't think of one where there wasn't!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Katie.

Merry Christmas!

Stephanie Burkhart said...

Very interesting, post and very informative. We have a Christmas tree. I like to buy those "homemade-like" ornaments at the mall that you can personalize and put them on the tree. Then we decorate with white lights, bows, and use only two color of bulbs. It really has a classical old time feel to it.


Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Interesting story, Katie. We used to always buy a live tree, but the past few years we've opted for an artificial one. I have decorations my sons made, ornaments my students gave me, ceramics I made, and other trinkets on it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Katie, Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones. I always enjoy your posts-so interesting and informative.