Oh, Christmas Tree!
It should not be terribly surprising to many that the holiday tradition of displaying decorated Christmas trees originated in the colder environments. By most accounts, the practice is traced to regions within Germany, although other nearby countries still dispute that claim. In the United States, it took a fairly lengthy period and an uphill battle before Christmas trees became an accepted element of holiday decoration. Some communities decreed Christmas trees immoral and illegal. One United States President went so far as to supposedly ban Christmas tress in the White House, but that decision had nothing to do with the immoral nature of a Douglas Fir or Blue Spruce.
Nonetheless, it will surprise some that the origination of the tradition of using evergreen trees and plants, decorated or plain, around December 25 pre-dates the Germans and all other Northern European countries by centuries. We must travel back to the Roman Empire and ancient Egyptian cultures to explore the true roots of our Christmas trees.
Before traveling back, I should relate my own story about the fairly sad Christmas tree from my youth. When I reached high school age, our family would buy a real Christmas tree each year and things then seemed normal. Unfortunately, prior to that time, our annual tree tradition involved a well past-its-prime artificial Christmas tree. When not in use, the tree rested in the remains of a large box in our musty and dusty “back cellar”. This storage area was the graveyard for all unwanted and unloved household items, holiday decorations, and “stuff’ with no other designated place in our house.
First order of business would be to locate the boxed tree, free it from the confines of the dingy back cellar, and determine whether the new holes in the box represented new entrances for mice or other critters before opening the taped-together box. Unlike the the artificial Christmas trees now available, our tree was among those with “complete assembly required”. The Christmas tree consisted of two wooden poles which connected with a flimsy dowel. Each pole included pre-drilled holes with individual branches to be inserted in the holes. At one time, perhaps when I was very young, a color coded system would guide the assembly with the end of branches painted colors to match the colors around each pre-drilled hole. Unfortunately, those paint markings had worn away before I had any recollection of them (probably a good thing as it most likely would have been lead-based paint).
It was an annual game of trial and error to find the correct branches to fit into each designated hole. That process was in no way aided by the fact that the pre-drilled holes had also become worn over the years. Some branches, at most, fit rather loosely in their designated spots. Of course, we always seemed to be a few branches short with my father declaring: “Well, where could they go?” One look in the tree box confirmed numerous pieces of broken apart tree limbs, but yet the missing branches remained a mystery.
The Christmas tree “trunk” poles never aligned with the top half of the tree slightly tilting to one side. The tilt would become more severe when the small crown portion of the tree would be attached to the top of the upper pole. A glass half full approach would consider the moving trunk combined with loose branches to offer the appearance of a pine tree gently swaying on a windy day. Personally, I feared the tree toppling over.
With its 1960s era top of the line technology, the needles on our artificial Christmas tree shed as much as a real tree. Assembling the tree resulted in a layer of needles all around the living room. While the tree remained up, more needles would fall. However, our artificial tree did not enjoy the Spring and Summer growing season to regenerate new needles. Our tree aged like a balding man, but without the combover.
Once assembled, the tree would be turned so that the empty branch spaces and thinned out areas would best face the wall. After lights were strung and ornaments added, the tree did not look half bad. I somehow developed more empathy for Charlie Brown’s saga with his own Christmas tree. On each Christmas while growing up, we met at one of my aunt’s houses a few blocks away. Each year, I marveled at her real Christmas tree always so full and even warm by comparison to our tree.
I always also wondered why our family stuck with our own poor imitation of a Christmas tree. The romantic in me waited for my parents to tell tales how they did not have two nickels to rub together when they first got married, but they scrimped and saved so that they could buy this tree for their first Christmas together. Or, perhaps, the tree was a gift from a relative and putting it up each year served as a reminder of the importance of family and friends. Nah. No such story ever emerged. When I was in middle school, we unceremoniously dumped the remains of the artificial tree at the curb.
Our family’s Christmas tree during my younger years simply would not measure up to the traditional decorated Christmas trees from Germany in the 16th Century. At that time, devout Christians would cut down and ornately decorate evergreen trees in honor of the Christmas season. Lighted candles would be wired to the tree branches to recreate the image of twinkling stars among an evergreen forest. The addition of lighted candles was new in the 16th Century and those traditions closely align with the present day sense of a Christmas tree.
However, for centuries before this time, northern and middle Europeans used evergreens as part of their Christmas traditions. Either trees would be used and decorated or pyramids of wood would be built and then decorated with evergreen branches. At times, cherry trees and hawthorne bushes would be used to celebrate the festivities. These earlier approaches grew from the prior pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.
As the shortest day of the year annually approached, many cultures turned to evergreen branches being hung over entranceways and windows to ward off all associated with extended darkness. On the shortest day of the year, December 21, witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illnesses could take advantage of the extended darkness unless evergreens were properly in place.
Early Romans celebrated the winter solstice as a feast to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. Saturnalia recognized that the days would start to get longer and farming could again soon proceed. Homes and temples would be decorated with evergreen boughs to thank Saturn for once again turning their fields green in the coming year.
In ancient Egypt, green palm rushes would be used as decorations at the time of the winter solstice. These green branches would honor the sun god, Ra. As the days became shorter as the winter solstice approached, Ra became weaker and more sickly as evidenced by the shorter daylight periods. If Ra could make it to the winter solstice, then he began to recuperate and gather his strength as shown by a little more daylight each day. The evergreen palm branches supported and encouraged Ra with this annual illness and near death experience.
Similar celebrations are found with the Druids and Vikings, each using evergreen boughs symbolizing eternal life during feasts at the winter solstice.
The transition from evergreen-infused pagan rituals on and around December 21 to Christmas trees on and around December 25 appears plain. That transition can be confirmed as complete by the 16th century. And yet, by 1850, Christmas trees were still not readily accepted in the United States. What took so long?
German settlers arrived in North America well before the 1800s. Records confirm that some German settlement areas included Christmas trees in their celebration as early as 1747. But these small enclaves were immigrant populations and generally looked down upon by the established power holders. But who could oppose a Christmas tree? Of course, those ever so tolerant New England Puritans. The group that deemed any non-Puritan among their midst a witch and hung them with no proof. The group that deemed it a sin if you dressed in black. The group that traveled to North America to escape persecution of their ways only to persecute others.
To the Puritans, Christmas was sacred and should be celebrated only through attending church service. Oliver Cromwell deemed Christmas carols, decorated trees and any joyful expression of Christmas as “the heathen traditions”. William Bradford, when serving as Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, penalized any frivolity which celebrated Christmas. One of his stated goals was to bring an end to the “pagan mockery” of Christmas which included Christmas trees. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making the observance of December 25 a penal offense except for attending church services. Fines were levied for hanging decorations or even daring to have a Christmas tree. Christmas trees became blatantly immoral by legislative fiat.
It was not until the second half of the 19th Century that these legacy views were abandoned. The influx of German and Irish immigrants, together with their celebrations, overwhelmed the Puritanical dominance. Christmas trees finally and freely arrived in the United States!
With Christmas trees accepted in our culture, why did Theodore Roosevelt ban them from the White House while he served as the 26th President of the United States? Christmas trees were then well-entrenched in our annual Christmas traditions. Roosevelt was no Puritan. Presumably, Theodore Roosevelt, as an avid outdoorsman and President who established the National Park system, loved trees. And that is exactly the point. Roosevelt was a conservationist. He viewed the annual cutting down of trees as an ecological waste with the trees better remaining in nature. Roosevelt used his position to advance that cause. Please note, many historical references confirm that despite this public position, the numerous Roosevelt children still enjoyed presents under a small Christmas tree well out of sight of others in the White House. Looks like Roosevelt was not such a Scrooge after all.
If not done already, go out and get your own Scotch Pine, Fraser Fir or Balsam Fir. Abandon that Puritan spirit and celebrate the holidays with the friendship of others (and a tree). As to the history of celebrating late December with evergreens, it is a good thing that Ra did not rely on the Christmas tree from my youth to redeem his health. Enjoy the Season!