The Christmas tree is a tradition older than Christmas itself

Why, every Christmas, do so many people put up with the mess of dry pine needles, the risk of fire and impossible-to-wrap strings of lights?

Attaching a fir tree to the hood of my car and worrying about the strength of the string, I sometimes wonder if I should buy an artificial tree and eliminate all the hassle. Then my inner historian chides me: I have to remind myself that I participate in one of the oldest religious traditions in the world. To give up the tree would be to give up a ritual that predates Christmas itself.

A symbol of life in a time of darkness

Almost all agrarian societies independently worshiped the Sun in their pantheon of gods at one time or another: there was the Sun of the Norse, Huitzilopochtli of the Aztecs, Helios of the Greeks.

The solstices, when the Sun is at its highest and lowest points in the sky, were important events. The winter solstice, when the sky is darkest, has been a notable day of celebration in agrarian societies throughout human history. The Persian Shab-e Yalda, Dongzhi in China, and American Hopi Soyal mark the occasion independently.

The favorite decoration of the ancient winter solstices? Perennial plants

Whether as palm branches gathered in Egypt in celebration of Ra or wreaths for the Roman festival of Saturnalia, evergreen trees have long served as symbols of life’s perseverance through the bleakness of winter. and the promise of the return of the Sun.

Christmas is emerging little by little

Christmas came much later. The date was not fixed in liturgical calendars until centuries after the birth of Jesus, and the English word Christmas – an abbreviation of “Christ’s Mass” – would not appear until more than 1,000 years after the original event.

Although December 25 was ostensibly a Christian holiday, many Europeans simply carried over the traditions of the notoriously strict winter solstice celebrations. For example, the 12 days of Christmas commemorated in the folk carol originated in the ancient Germanic Christmas celebrations.

The continued use of perennials, especially the Christmas tree, is the most visible remnant of those ancient solstice celebrations. Although Ernst Anschütz’s well-known 1824 carol dedicated to the tree translates into English as “O Christmas Tree,” the title of the original German tune is simply “Tannenbaum,” meaning fir tree. There is no reference to Christmas in the carol, which Anschütz based on a much older Silesian folk love song. In keeping with ancient solstice celebrations, the song praises the faithfulness of the tree during the dark and cold winter.

Bacchanalian reaction

German Protestants in the 16th century, eager to remove the iconography and relics of the Roman Catholic Church, gave the Christmas tree a big boost when they used it to replace nativity scenes. Religious reformer Martin Luther supposedly adopted the practice and added candles.

But a century later, English Puritans frowned upon the disorderly holiday as lacking biblical legitimacy. It was banned in the 1650s, with soldiers patrolling the streets of London looking for anyone who dared to celebrate the day. Puritan settlers in Massachusetts did the same, fining “whosoever shall be found observing Christmas or the like, either by abstaining from work, feasts, or otherwise.”

German immigration to the American colonies ensured that the practice of trees would take root in the New World. Benjamin Franklin estimated that at least one-third of the white population of Pennsylvania was German before the American Revolution.

However, the German Christmas tree tradition flourished in the United States largely because of Britain’s German royal lineage.

Taking a cue from the queen

Since 1701, English kings were forbidden to become Catholics or to marry. Germany, which was made up of a patchwork of kingdoms, had plenty of eligible Protestant princes and princesses. Many members of the British royal family kept the family custom of a Christmas tree private, but Queen Victoria – who had a German mother and a German grandmother on her father’s side – made the practice public and fashionable.

Victoria’s style of government reflected and shaped the outwardly stern, family-centered morality that dominated middle-class life during the era. In the 1840s, Christmas became the target of reformers such as novelist Charles Dickens, who sought to transform the ramshackle celebrations of the largely marginalized holiday into a family day on which people in the rapidly industrializing nation could relax, rejoice and give thanks.

His 1843 novel, “A Christmas Carol,” in which miser Ebenezer Scrooge found redemption by accepting Dickens’ holiday recipes, was a hit with audiences. Although the evergreen decoration is evident in the hand-colored illustrations that Dickens commissioned especially for the book, there are no Christmas trees in these images.

Victoria added the fir tree to family celebrations five years later. Although Christmas trees had been part of private royal celebrations for decades, an 1848 issue of the London Illustrated News depicted Victoria with her German husband and children decorating one as a family at Windsor Castle.

The cultural impact was almost instantaneous. Christmas trees began to appear in homes in England, its colonies and the rest of the English-speaking world. Dickens followed up with his short story “A Christmas Tree” two years later.

Embracing tradition in America

During this period, the American middle classes generally embraced all things Victorian, from architecture to moral reform societies.

Sarah Hale, the author most famous for the children’s poem “Mary had a Little Lamb,” used her position as editor of the best-selling magazine Godey’s Ladies Book to advance a reformist agenda that included the abolition of slavery and creating holidays that promote godly family values. The adoption of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 was perhaps his most lasting achievement.

It is closely followed by the Christmas tree.

While trees sporadically adorned the homes of German immigrants in the US, it became general middle-class practice when, in 1850, Godey’s published an engraving of Victoria and her Christmas tree. A supporter of Dickens and the movement to reinvent Christmas, Hale helped popularize the family Christmas tree across the pond.

It wasn’t until 1870 that the United States recognized Christmas as a federal holiday.

The practice of erecting public Christmas trees originated in the USA in the 20th century. In 1923, the first appeared on the South Lawn of the White House. During the Great Depression, famous landmarks like New York’s Rockefeller Center began erecting ever-larger trees.

Christmas trees go global

As both American and British cultures spread their influence around the world, Christmas trees began to appear in communal spaces even in non-predominantly Christian countries. Business districts in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Tokyo now regularly erect trees.

The modern Christmas tree is a universal symbol that has both religious and secular meanings. Adorned with lights, they promote hope and offer brightness in the darkest time of the year for half the world.

In this sense, the modern Christmas tree has come full circle.

Troy Bickham is a professor in the Department of History at Texas A&M University.

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