We all love the Christmas tree. Digging out the decorations from the shed, and once more making magic with a wire and vinyl construction that’s never been within fifty miles of a forest. A twinkling standard, that we think of once a year and then pack away into oblivion for the next eleven months – without ever knowing why. The Christmas tree is steeped in tradition and history, and it’s a history that may surprise some people as it has very little to do with Christianity at all.
Pagans did it first
Ancient people thought that the winter came because the sun god had become weak or sick, and the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, marked the time he would begin to recover his strength. They celebrated the solstice by bringing evergreen tree limbs into their homes to remind them of the crops that would flourish soon now that the sun was coming back.
Many ancient cultures had the same idea. The Egyptians’ sun god was Ra, and every year on the solstice, when Ra began to recover from his sickness, they would strew their homes with green rushes, which symbolized the triumph of life over death. The early Romans had a festival called Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, their god of agriculture. To mark the occasion they decorated their temples and their homes with evergreen foliage and ivy. Druids, priests of the ancient Celtic people, also decorated temples with this same symbol of everlasting life, using holly, laurel and fir branches. The Vikings of the north thought that evergreens were beloved of the sun god Balder, as they seemed to never die, and they considered mistletoe to have magical properties.
The “”Holy Thorn” of Glastonbury
There is a legend regarding very early Christian veneration of a tree, which dates back to the days just after Christ’s death. Joseph of Arimathea traveled to England, taking with him the staff once owned by Jesus. He stuck the staff in the ground on Wearyall Hill, before laying down to rest. When he awoke he found that the staff had sprouted into a tree, which became a shrine for European Christians.
It survived for centuries, before being felled by Puritans around 1647. Devout believers took cuttings from the tree and planted them around the town of Glastonbury, and a cutting from these trees was placed back on the original site in 1951. This tree flowers twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. DNA testing has been performed on this plant, which shows that it is indeed of middle eastern origins. Every year, a sprig of twigs is taken from this tree and sent to the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, to decorate her Christmas table.
We don’t want none of that
Early Christians were quite resistant to the idea of celebrating the solstice, the theologian Tertullian (circa 1 AD) going so far as to say that those who did so were doomed to the fires of hell.
“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable.”
In the 11th century throughout Europe a form of entertainment called the “Mystery Play” became popular. One of these was the “Paradise Play”, and showed the story of Adam and Eve, their creation, sin, and eventual banishment from Eden. The only prop that was used in this particular play was the Paradise Tree, a fir tree hung with the apples that Eve would eat and offer to Adam.
In the years between the 11th and 15th centuries AD certain “improvements” to the play had been made by various authors and actors, and the Church forbade its performance because of moral concerns. The people liked their Paradise Play however, and they began setting them up in their own homes. Their Paradise Trees were decorated with apples, symbolizing spiritual death, and homemade communion wafers to mean everlasting life. Later on, red and white paper flowers were added, red for knowledge and white for innocence.
The custom of burning the evergreen wood that Tertullian had denounced was still alive and well in the very first documented town Christmas tree, very likely a Paradise Tree, in the market square of Riga in Latvia, in 1510. The ceremony was attended by “men in black hats”, and they burned the tree afterwards. This custom survived until at least 1584, when a historian, Balthasar Russow wrote about a custom in Riga in which the people decorated a fir tree in the market square, and “young men went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”.
By the time of the 17th century, the custom was very widespread, and people were going around lopping off the tops of fir trees, which permanently stunted them. Lumber industries became so concerned that statutes were made in Germany to prevent people having more than one tree.
The custom was bought to America by the Pennsylvanian German settlers, starting around 1683, and they were public trees as early as 1747. They also brought with them their habit of putting candles on some kind of stand underneath the tree, usually one for each member of the family. These candles eventually migrated to the tree itself, becoming the forerunners of our modern Christmas lights. The spread of the Christmas tree was almost guaranteed with the publication of a photograph in 1846 showing Britains’ beloved Queen Victoria standing with her family by a huge decorated tree. Victoria’s husband, Albert, was of German descent and had bought his traditions with him to England. The east coast socialites of America emulated this fashion, and thus the tradition took firm hold.
23 rd president Benjamin Harrison was the first to put up a tree in the White House for his family and guests to enjoy in 1889. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lit the first national Christmas tree in the White House grounds. Not only was it the first “community tree”, it was also the first to be graced with electric lights, 2500 bulbs of white, red and green.In 1929 First Lady Hoover began the tradition of overseeing the decoration of her tree, and this has been part of the first lady’s duties ever since.
Christmas trees have come a long way since then, but they remain a symbol of joy to all, no matter your religious persuasions.
Merry Christmas to all from Lundholm Landscaping.
P.O. Box 1066
Cape May, NJ 08204