Why do so many people endure the mess of dried pine needles, the threat of a fire hazard, and impossibly tangled strings of lights every Christmas?
Sometimes when I strap a Christmas tree to the hood of my car and I’m concerned about the strength of the twine, I wonder if I should just buy an artificial tree and save myself all the hassle. Then my inner historian scolds me – I have to remind myself that I’m part of one of the oldest religious traditions in the world. Giving up the tree would mean giving up a ritual that took place before Christmas itself.
A symbol of life in a time of darkness
Almost all agrarian societies at some point independently worshiped the sun in their pantheon of gods – there was the Sol of the Norse, the Aztec Huitzilopochtli, the Greek Helios.
The solstices, when the sun is at its highest and lowest point in the sky, were major events. The winter solstice, when the sky is at its darkest, has been a notable holiday in agrarian societies throughout human history. Persian Shab-e Yalda, Dongzhi in China, and North American Hopi Soyal all independently mark the occasion.
The preferred decor for old winter solstice? Evergreen plants.
Whether as palm branches gathered in Egypt to celebrate Ra or as wreaths for the Roman festival of Saturnalia, evergreens have long served as symbols of life’s permanence during the bleak winter and the promise of the sun’s return.
Christmas is slowly coming
Christmas came much later. The date did not appear in liturgical calendars until centuries after Jesus’ birth, and the English word Christmas—an abbreviation of “Christ’s Mass”—did not appear until over 1,000 years after the original event.
While December 25 was ostensibly a Christian holiday, many Europeans simply adopted traditions from the winter solstice celebrations, which were notoriously noisy. For example, the 12 days of Christmas commemorated in the popular Christmas carol actually have their origins in ancient Germanic Christmas celebrations.
The continued use of evergreens, particularly the Christmas tree, is the most visible remnant of these ancient solstice celebrations. Although Ernst Anschütz’s well-known 1824 Christmas song dedicated to the tree is translated into English as “O Christmas Tree”, the title of the original German tune is simply “Tannenbaum”, meaning “Tannenbaum”. In the song, which Anschütz is based on a much older Silesian folk love song, there is no reference to Christmas. In keeping with ancient midsummer celebrations, the song praises the tree’s faithful hardiness during the dark and cold winter.
The German Protestants of the 16th century, eager to remove the iconography and relics of the Roman Catholic Church, gave the Christmas tree a huge boost when they used it in place of nativity scenes. The reformer Martin Luther is said to have adopted the practice and added candles.
But a century later, English Puritans frowned upon the disorderly holiday for lack of biblical legitimacy. They outlawed it in the 1650s when soldiers patrolled the streets of London looking for anyone daring to celebrate the day. Puritan colonists in Massachusetts did the same, punishing “anyone who celebrates Christmas or the like, either by abstaining from work, celebration, 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 a third of Pennsylvania’s white population before the American Revolution were Germans.
Nonetheless, the German tradition of the Christmas tree flourished in the United States largely due to Britain’s German royal lineage.
Taking a cue from the queen
Since 1701, English kings were forbidden to become or marry Catholics. Germany, made up of a patchwork of kingdoms, lacked legitimate Protestant princes and princesses. Many British royals privately maintained the familiar custom of a Christmas tree, but Queen Victoria – who had both a German mother and German paternal grandmother – made the practice public and fashionable.
Victoria’s style of rule reflected and shaped the outwardly austere, family-centric morality that dominated middle-class life during this period. In the 1840s, Christmas became the target of reformers like the novelist Charles Dickens, who sought to turn the riotous celebrations of the largely marginal holiday into a family day when the people of the rapidly industrialized nation could relax, rejoice, and give thanks.
His 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, in which the wretched Ebenezer Scrooge found redemption by adopting Dickens’ recipes for the holiday, was a hit with audiences. While the evergreen decor is evident in the hand-colored illustrations Dickens commissioned specifically 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 showed Victoria with her German husband and children decorating one as a family at Windsor Castle.
The cultural impact was almost instantaneous. Christmas trees appeared in homes across England, its colonies and the rest of the English-speaking world. Dickens followed two years later with his short story A Christmas Tree.
Adopting the tradition in America
During this period, the American middle class generally encompassed all things Victorian, from architecture to moral reform societies.
Sarah Hale, the author best known for her children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” used her position as editor of best-selling Godey’s Ladies Book magazine to advance a reformist agenda that included the abolition of slavery and the introduction of Holidays promoted devout family values. Establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 was perhaps their most enduring achievement.
Closely followed by the Christmas tree.
While trees sporadically adorned the homes of German immigrants in the United States, it became a common middle-class practice when Godey’s published an engraving of Victoria and her Christmas tree in 1850. A supporter of Dickens and the movement to reinvent Christmas, Hale helped popularize the family Christmas tree across the pond.
It was not until 1870 that the United States recognized Christmas as a federal holiday.
The practice of putting up public Christmas trees originated in the United States in the 20th century. In 1923, the first appeared on the South Lawn of the White House. During the Great Depression, famous sites like New York’s Rockefeller Center began to grow taller and taller trees.
Christmas trees are going global
As both American and British cultures spread their influence around the world, Christmas trees began to appear in countries that are not predominantly Christian. Shopping districts in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Tokyo are now regularly putting up trees.
The modern Christmas tree is a universal symbol that carries both religious and secular meanings. Decorated with lights, they awaken hope and provide brightness for half the world in what is literally the darkest time of the year.
In this sense, the modern Christmas tree has come full circle.
Troy Bickham is a professor of history at Texas A&M University.
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