O Christmas Tree!

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 3, 2004

Thanksgiving 2004 has come and gone and the holiday season is truly upon us. Some folks have already begun decking their halls – and a central part of that festive tradition in the U.S. is trimming the Christmas tree.

In Greenville, lighted trees grace the exteriors of businesses and offices up and down Commerce St. this time of year, while more gaily decorated trees grab your attention once you walk inside. With apologies to author Louisa May Alcott, many would say, &uot;Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a Christmas tree.&uot;

Whether your home is spacious or tiny; whether you enjoy trudging through the woods to cut your own pine, or you prefer unpacking a deluxe pre-lit faux tannenbaum that assembles in minutes – there are a multitude of choices, tall and small, real and fake, old-fashioned and new-fangled, from which to choose.

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But have you ever wondered WHY we choose to put a tree adorned with lights and garlands and all manner of ornaments in our den or living room every December?

Why do we hang wreaths on our doors and entwine our banisters with evergreen garlands, for that matter?

It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, well before the birth of Christ – one Egypt’s King Tut, in fact, would have heartily appreciated. There’s just something about those evergreens…

Long live the evergreen

Before the birth of the Christmas tree as we know and love it, the evergreen plant had long been a symbol of life and vitality. Flourishing through otherwise bleak and lifeless winters experienced in many parts of the world, evergreen trees and plants like holly and mistletoe became sacred to long-ago peoples.

The Druids wore holly during the cutting of the mistletoe at their winter solstice festivals. The Romans decorated homes and images of the god Saturn with holly during the Saturnalia festival – and some early Christians, anxious to escape persecution, also decked their homes with some of these plants. Many also thought bringing evergreens into their homes would invite in the kindly woodland spirits they believed lived inside the evergreens during the winter. In ancient Egypt, people would decorate their homes with green palm branches on the shortest day of the year (Dec. 21 on the modern calendar).

With the Christianization of some of these winter pagan festivals, the ancient tradition took on a new meaning as evergreens came to symbolize the eternal life offered by faith in Jesus Christ.

Legend of the Christmas tree

There are many legends that swirl around the origins of the Christmas tree. One of the loveliest stories centers around Martin Luther.

One crisp winter’s eve in the year 1510, it is said, Luther went for a walk. As he strolled through the woods, he glanced up and saw stars shining through the branches of a fir tree. Inspired by the sight, Luther cut the tree down, brought it inside and adorned it with candles to represent the stars in the night sky – thus creating the very first Christmas tree.

Another tale says it was Saint Boniface, an English missionary to Germanic tribes, who created the first Christmas tree in the eighth century.

Legend has it Saint Boniface decided to rid the pagans of their chief symbol, the great oak near Geismar, symbol of the god Thor. The missionary struck the tree whereupon a great wind splintered the oak into four pieces. Believing the pagans needed a physical symbol of the Christian faith, Saint Boniface called their attention to a small fir tree nearby. Because the tree pointed to heaven and its green branches symbolized eternal life through Christ, he gave the tribes the fir tree as a symbol of the Christ Child.

Another legend says when Christ was born at midnight, all the trees on earth bloomed – and they still bloom every Christmas when we decorate our trees at home.

Yet another popular Christmas tree legend is the one about a cold, hungry young boy who sought refuge at a poor woodsman’s home one Christmas Eve. The family welcomed the child, gave him food and a bed. The next morning, the home was bathed in a brilliant light, and the woodsman’s family realized they had been visited by the Christ child. He rewarded their kindness by planting a tiny fir tree that would grow and forever bear fruit each Christmas.

Just the (Christmas tree) facts, ma’am

The legends are all lovely, but what are the facts? We do know pine trees decorated with fruits were used to symbolize the Tree of Life during Miracle Plays of the 14th and 15th centuries.

When the plays were later banned for too much frivolous singing and dancing, people kept the tradition of decorating trees alive in their homes, adding strings of wafers to the branches to symbolize the Eucharist.

Early documents tell us the first Christmas trees appeared in homes in Strasbourg, Germany in 1605. These trees, trimmed with paper roses, sweets, wafers and gold foil, were also decorated with hundreds of glowing candles, a tradition that continued for several hundred years until the advent of electricity.

Christmas trees had arrived in England by the late 1700s, but their future in Britain was assured when Queen Victoria permitted her beloved consort, the German-born Prince Albert of Saxony, to set one up in Windsor Castle in 1841. Those early Victorian trees were smaller, table-top models; the concept of the floor-to-ceiling tree was introduced here in forest-rich America in the early 1800s. (In fact, medieval land ordinances in Europe had once restricted a cut tree to be no more than four feet in height).

Christmas trees,


And speaking of America, rumor has it the Moravians, a group of religious German immigrants, brought the first Christmas trees to our shores upon their arrival in 1735. The Moravian trees were really ‘pyramids’ (decorated, wooden frameworks with shelves containing food, gifts and a Nativity scene, laden with evergreen boughs).

Later on, the Hessians (German mercenaries hired by the British) helped establish Christmas trees in America by decorating them – yes, even in the midst of the Revolutionary War.

The first written record that mentioned decorated Christmas trees in the USA appeared in the diary of a Matthew Zahn from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, dated December 20, 1821. At the turn of the 20th century, Christmas trees had become more common throughout /America, but especially were popular in areas settled by German immigrants, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and South Carolina.

The National Christmas Tree

In 1856, New Hampshire native Franklin Pierce became the first president to set up a Christmas tree in the White House. Other presidents followed suit, and in 1895, Grover Cleveland really took the Christmas tree to a new level when he used the first string of electric lights to adorn the White House tree.

In 1902, ardent conservationist Teddy Roosevelt needed a great deal of persuasion to allow his children a Christmas tree. If the founder of the Yale School of Forestry hadn’t convinced the president thinning the tree population would help new growth, there would have been no Christmas tree in the White House that year.

In 1923, under the administration of Calvin Coolidge, the first national public Christmas tree adorned the White House’s south lawn.

On Christmas Eve, the president lit 3,000 electric lights on the 60-foot Vermont fir, kicking off what has become a beloved annual event in the nation.

Like Roosevelt, however, Coolidge had concerns about cutting down healthy trees for symbolic reasons. In 1924, Coolidge commissioned the American Forestry Association to plant &uot;The National Living Christmas Tree&uot; in Sherman Square near the White House. The tree has been lit every year since then by the nation’s top executive.

As you trim your own tannenbaum this year, and take delight in its green branches, reflect on the glorious history, myth and legend surrounding this lovely holiday tradition.

Merry Christmas!