The need to find symbols for eternal mysteries lies deep in the human family. At this time of the year the landscape is bare and frozen. All the life of nature seems to be frozen and dead. Gone is the verdant green, brilliantly colored flowers, rushing waters. The days grow ever shorter; even the sun seems to be failing. Ever since the beginning of time humans have faced the terror of this seeming death and looked for hope. Many cultures have found it in the family of evergreens that flourish in the cold and the dark. Life is not extinguished, it keeps burning in these trees and shrubs.
Long before there was Christmas many cultures considered trees to be sacred. The evergreen, whether the fir of the Northland or date palm of Egypt, spoke of an enduring life at a time when nature seemed to be dying.
The oak was sacred in Germany and worship of this tree was still strong in Germany in the early 700s. St. Boniface who came from Britain to convert the Druids is the hero of one tale about the fir tree. As part of his sermon on the nativity and to prove that the sacred oak was not inviolable, the saint chopped one down. The huge tree crushed everything in its path except for one little fir sapling. According to legend, Boniface said this was a miracle and called the little fir the tree of the Christ Child.
Another legend says that Saint Winfred in Scandinavia came upon the war god Thor’s priests about to make a human sacrifice in front of the sacred thunder oak. Saint Winfred drew out his axe which almost magically cut down the great tree. The tree fell and split apart, but a young fir tree stood by. The saint declared the fir a tree of peace, and that when brought into their homes it would not mark deeds of blood but acts of love and kindness. Like Boniface, he called it the tree of the Christ Child.
The decorations are a reference to the old Paradise Plays which brought Bible stories to life with settings and characters. In the play’s Garden of Paradise there was a tree hung with apples. Eventually, Christmas trees were decorated with paper flowers and glittery ornaments as well as paradisiacal apples.
We think of Christmas trees as being tall, but the earliest trees were small. By the mid-1500s there were rules about how high a Christmas tree could be. Not very high. For centuries most Christmas trees were table top trees. It was an illustration of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating with their children and a lighted and decorated table top tree that captured the fancy of the greater public and made the Christmas tree a more common part of the holiday festivities.
The Germanic people can take much of the credit for the decorated Christmas tree. Martin Luther is even credited with adding lights. According to the legend he was walking home one winter night working on his sermon. He was struck by the beauty of the brilliant stars shining above the evergreen woodland. When he got home he wanted to create this loveliness for his family. He put up a tree and wired candles to its branches.
The custom of decorating and lighting trees traveled to Scandinavia and England (the English royal family had Hanoverian antecedents). It was German immigrants who brought the Christmas tree to the United States in the 17th century.
On the other hand the puritans who first settled in Massachusetts were against customs that joyously celebrated Christmas. For them the sacred solemnity of Christ’s birth outweighed the joy related by the angels. William Bradford, the second governor of the colony, wrote about the “pagan mockery” of festive Christmas celebration and set penalties for those who indulged in such frivolity.
Celebration has won out, of course. In 1823 in York Pennsylvania the Society of Bachelors set up a Christmas tree and advertised it as “Superb, superfine, superfrostical, schockagastical, and double refined.”
Later in the late nineteenth century the desire for Christmas trees was common enough that Christmas tree lots sprung up in New York City.
Public Christmas trees with electric candles were set up in Finland in 1906. It is easy to imagine the appeal of such a tree in a country where winter days are so short and dark. But New York was not far behind. It had its own electrically lit Christmas tree in 1912.
In addition to their cultural traditions every family has its own Christmas traditions. Some families put up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve but mine is always up well in advance so that I can enjoy its gaiety with my family and friends. It doesn’t come down until the arrival of the Three Kings on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.
Between the Rows December 2003