History of Christmas Trees
November 15, 2006 8:47am CST
The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of the ancient pagan idea that the evergreen tree represents a celebration of the renewal of life. The Old English poem the Dream of the rood features a tree which becomes the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The poem also refers to the Tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis. Medieval legends tended to concentrate more on the miraculous "flowering" of trees at Christmas time. A branch of flowering Glastonbury thorn is still sent annually for the Queen's Christmas table in the United Kingdom. Patron trees held special significance for the ancient Germanic tribes, appearing throughout historic accounts as sacred symbols and objects. Among early Germanic tribes the Yule tradition was celebrated by sacrificing male animals and slaves by suspending them on the branches of trees. According to Adam of Bremen, in Scandinavia the pagan kings sacrificed nine males of each species at the sacred groves every ninth year. According to one legend, Saint Boniface attempted to introduce the idea of trinity to the pagan tribes using the cone-shaped evergreen trees because of their triangular appearance. The modern custom, however, although likely related, cannot be proven to be directly descended from pagan tradition. It can be traced to 16th century Germany; Ingeborg Weber-Keller (Marburg professor of European ethnology) identified as the earliest reference a Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 which reports how a small fir was decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers, and erected in the guild-house, for the benefit of the guild members' children, who collected the dainties on Christmas day. Another early reference is from Basel, where the taylor apprentices carried around town a tree decorated with apples and cheese in 1597. The city of Riga, Latvia claims to be home of the first holiday tree, an octagonal plaque in the town square reads "The First New Years Tree in Riga in 1510", in eight different languages. During the 17th century, the custom entered family homes. One Strasbourg priest, Johann Konrad Dannerhauer, complains about the custom as distracting from the Word of God. By the early 18th century, the custom had become common in towns of the upper Rhineland, but it had not yet spread to rural areas. Wax candles are attested from the late 18th century. The Christmas tree remained confined to the upper Rhineland for a relatively long time. It was regarded as a Protestant custom by the Catholic majority along the lower Rhine, and was spread there only by Prussian officials who were moved there in the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the early 19th century, the custom became popular among the nobility and spread to royal courts as far as Russia. Princess Henrietta von Nassau-Weilburg introduced the Christmas tree to Vienna in 1816, and the custom spread across Austria in the following years. In France, the first Christmas tree was introduced in 1840 by the duchess of Orleans. In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced by King George III's German Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but did not spread much beyond the royal family. Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with the custom, in her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old Princess wrote: "After dinner...we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room...There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees...". After her marriage to her German cousin, Prince Albert, the custom became even more widespread. In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: "I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest[his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas trees is not less than ours used to be". The generous Prince Albert also presented large numbers of trees to schools and army barracks at Christmas. Images of the royal family with their Christmas tree at Osborne House were illustrated in English magazines, initially as a woodcut in the Illustrated London News of December 1848, and copied in the United States at Christmas 1850. Such patriotic prints of the British royal family at Christmas celebrations helped popularise the Christmas tree in Britain and among the anglophile American upper class. There are several cities in the United States which lay claim to that country's first Christmas tree. Windsor Locks, Connecticut claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, thus making it the home of the first Christmas tree in New England. The "First Christmas Tree in America" is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816. Many cities, towns, and department stores put up public Christmas trees outdoors for everyone to enjoy, such as the Rich's Great Tree in Atlanta, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City and the large Christmas tree at Victoria Square in Adelaide. During the 1970's and 1980's, the largest Christmas tree in the world was put up every year on the property of The National Enquirer in Lantana, Florida. This tradition grew into one of the most spectacular and celebrated events in the history of south Florida. Unfortunately, this annual affair was discontinued upon the death of the papers founder in the late 1980's. In some cities festivals are organised around the decoration and display of multiple trees as charity events. In some cases the trees represent special commemorative gifts, such as in Trafalgar Square in London where the City of Oslo presents a tree to the people of London as a token of appreciation for the British support of Norwegian resistance during the Second World War; in Boston where the tree is a gift from the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in thanks for rapid deployment of supplies and rescuers to the 1917 ammunition ship explosion that leveled Halifax harbor; and in Newcastle upon Tyne, where the 15 m tall main civic Christmas tree is an annual gift from the city of Bergen, Norway in thanks for the part played by soldiers from Newcastle in liberating Bergen from Nazi occupation. The United States' National Christmas Tree is lit each year south of the White House in Washington, D.C. Today, the lighting of the National Tree is part of what has become a major holiday event at the White House. President Jimmy Carter only lit the crowning star atop the Tree in 1979 in honor of the Americans being held hostage in Iran; in 1980, the tree was only fully lit for 417 seconds, one second for each day the hostages had been in captivity. NAME CONTROVERSY The term holiday tree has, since at least 1990 (and perhaps before), been used by some in the United States and Canada as an effort to be more inclusive, and to reflect the winter holiday season instead of any specific religious holiday. A recent campaign spearheaded by Fox News' contributors Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity has resulted in a backlash from some Christian groups and individuals who feel the designation "holiday tree" is part of a so-called war on Christmas USAGE CONTROVERSY Some Christians, albeit a minority, feel that the practice of having "Christmas Trees" is prohibited by the Book of Jeremiah 10:1-5 which says,For the customs of the people[are] vain: for[one] cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good. KJV. Interpreting those verses as a ban on Christmas trees may be more common among individuals and Christian denominations that are part of the King-James-Only Movement. In other English translations of the Bible the verses more explicitly refer to the practice of making idols to be worshipped:For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with a hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good. A full study of the passage shows that the people would cut down a tree and work it with a chisel to engrave an image in it. They would also carry it from place to place as an object to be feared and worshipped. The only consistencies with Christmas tree customs seem to be that both are made of wood and both are decorated. Some Christians, again a minority, feel that since "Christmas Trees" are not biblically ordained, they should not be used. Such individuals and Christian denominations are unlikely to celebrate Christmas at all, for the same reason, such as the United Church of God. Most churches however use Christmas trees as decoration at Christmas time. Some churches use the same stripped Christmas tree as a Christian cross at Easter. See the The Dream of the Rood described above. Both Ezekiel 47:12 and the Book of Revelation 22:2 use trees as a symbol of new fruitful life, comparative to the Tree of life denied Adam in Genesis 3:22-23. Paul makes the link between Adam and Christ clear in Romans chapter 5. In the same way the Christmas tree can be seen as mirroring the tree of life, a symbol or type of the Crucifix which brings redemption.