Why, every Christmas, do so many people endure the mess of dried pine needles, the risk of fire and impossibly tangled strings of lights?
When I attach a Christmas tree to the hood of my car and worry about the strength of the twine, I sometimes wonder if I should just buy an artificial tree and get rid of all the hassle. Then my inner historian scolds me – I have to remind myself that I am participating in one of the world’s oldest religious traditions. To give up the tree would be to give up a ritual that precedes Christmas itself.
A symbol of life in a time of darkness
Almost all agrarian societies independently venerated the sun in their pantheon of gods at one time or another – there were Nordic sunthe Aztec Huitzilopochtlithe Greek Helios.
Solstice, 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 day of celebration in agricultural societies throughout human history. The Persian Shab-e Yalda, Dongzhi in China and the North American one Hopi Soyal all independently mark the occasion.
That favorite old winter solstice decor? Evergreen plants.
Be that as it may palm branches collected in Egypt in the celebration of Ra or wreaths for the Roman festival of Saturnaliaevergreens have long served as symbols of the endurance of life in the gloom of winter, and the promise of the sun’s return.
Christmas is slowly coming
Christmas came much later. The date was not fixed in liturgical calendars until centuries after the birth of Jesus, and the English word Christmas – an abbreviation of “Christ’s Mass” – would not appear until over 1,000 years after the original event.
While December 25 was ostensibly a Christian holiday, many Europeans simply carried over traditions from the Winter Solstice celebrations, which were notoriously raucous affairs. For example, the 12 days of Christmas celebrated in the popular carol actually have their origins in ancient Germanic Christmas celebrations.
The continued use of evergreens, most notably the Christmas tree, is the most visible remnant of these ancient solstice celebrations. Although Ernst Anschütz’s well-known 1824 Christmas carol dedicated to the tree is translated into English as “O Christmas Tree,” the title of the original German song is simply “Tannenbaum,” meaning fir tree. There is no reference to Christmas in the carol, like Anschütz based on a much older Silesian folk love song. In keeping with ancient solstice celebrations, the song praises the tree’s faithful hardiness during the dark and cold winter.
Sixteenth-century German Protestants, eager to remove the iconography and relics of the Roman Catholic Church, gave the Christmas tree a huge boost when they used it to replace the nativity scene. The religious reformer Martin Luther probably adopted this practice and added light.
But a century later, the English Puritans frowned upon the disorderly feast as lacking biblical legitimacy. They banned it in the 1650s, with soldiers patrolling the streets of London looking for anyone who dares to celebrate the day. Puritan Colonists in Massachusetts did the samefine “whosoever is found during Christmas or the like, either by abstaining from work, feasts, or otherwise.”
German immigration to the American colonies ensured that the use of trees would take root in the New World. Benjamin Franklin appreciated it at least one third of Pennsylvania’s white population was German before the American Revolution.
Nevertheless, the German tradition of the Christmas tree flourished in the United States in large part because of Britain’s German royal lineage.
Takes a cue from the queen
Since 1701 English kings had been forbidden to become or marry Catholics. Germany, which consisted of a patchwork of kingdoms, had legitimate Protestant princes and princesses to spare. Many British royals privately maintained the familiar custom of a Christmas tree, but Queen Victoria – who had a German mother as well as a German grandmother on his father’s side – made the practice public and fashionable.
Victoria’s style of rulership both reflected and shaped the extroverted, family-centered morality which dominated middle-class life during the era. In the 1840s, Christmas became the target of reformers such as the novelist Charles Dickens, who tried to transform the raucous celebration of the largely neglected holiday into a family day where the people of the rapidly industrializing nation could relax, rejoice and give thanks.
His 1843 short story, “A Christmas song,” in which the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge found redemption by embracing Dickens’ recipe for the holiday, was a hit with the public. Although the evergreen decor is evident in the hand-colored illustrations Dickens commissioned especially for the book, there are no Christmas trees in those images.
Victoria added the tree to the family celebration five years later. Although Christmas trees had been part of private royal celebrations for decades, an 1848 issue of the London Illustrated News pictured Victoria with her German husband and children who decorated one as a family at Windsor Castle.
The cultural impact was almost immediate. Christmas trees began to appear in homes all over England, its colonies and the rest of the English-speaking world. Dickens followed with his short story”A Christmas tree” two years later.
Adopting the tradition of America
During this period, America’s middle class generally embraced all things Victorian, from architecture to moral reform societies.
Sarah Haleauthor best known for his children’s poem “Mary had a Little Lamb”, used his position as editor of the best-selling magazine Godey’s Women’s Book to promote a reformist agenda that included the abolition of slavery and the creation of holidays that promoted pious family values. The adoption of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 was perhaps her most enduring achievement.
It is closely followed by the fir tree.
While trees sporadically adorned the homes of German immigrants in the United States, it became a common middle-class practice when, in 1850, Godey’s published an engraving of Victoria and her Christmas tree. Hale, a supporter of Dickens and the movement to reinvent Christmas, helped popularize the family Christmas tree across the pond.
Only in 1870 did the United States recognizes Christmas as a federal holiday.
The practice of erecting public Christmas trees appeared 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 places like New York’s Rockefeller Center began to erect increasingly large trees.
Christmas trees go global
As both American and British culture expanded their influence over the world, Christmas trees began to appear in common spaces even in non-predominantly Christian countries. Shopping districts in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Tokyo now regularly travels trees.
The modern Christmas tree is a universal symbol that carries meanings both religious and secular. Adorned with candles, they promote hope and provide brightness in literally the darkest time of the year for half the world.
In that sense, the modern Christmas tree has come full circle.
Author: Troy Bickham – Professor of History, Texas A&M University