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Roots of the Christmas Tree

December 20, 2012

Though Christmas tree decorating has become one of the most cherished American traditions to date, it didn’t start out that way. We adapted this act of celebration from German folks, who immigrated here many years ago; but did you know that it was first outlawed by early American settlers who insisted it was an expression that desecrated “the most sacred event?”

Long before the beginning of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green had a special meaning for people all over the world during the long winter months. Just as people decorate their homes today with pine, spruce and fir trees, people of ancient times hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness away.

The shortest nights of the year in the northern hemisphere are December 21 and December 22. These dates bring about the winter solstice; an event still celebrated today. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter arrived every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, the mysterious Druids, as well as Scandinavian Vikings all placed green plants in temples to symbolize the triumph of life over death as well as everlasting life.

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was in short supply. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. It is told that while Luther was walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he put up a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Most 19th century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

In fact, early New England Puritan settlers, who were located primarily in Boston at the time, outlawed the decorating of Christmas trees, as well as any observance of December 25, except for church services. Therefore, if one was observed singing Christmas carols, hanging decorations, or decorating a Christmas tree, they would be fined. That stern somberness continued until the 19th century, when the arrival of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan tradition of a church only celebration.

In 1846, beloved royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court instantly became fashionable to not only with the British society, but with the fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree tradition had finally began.

The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while German-American’s persisted to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for as long as desired. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

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