Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The History of the Christmas Tree

Each year everyone runs around looking for the ‘perfect’ tree with which they will decorate their houses. It is, undoubtedly, a central part of the Christmas celebrations all around the world. They are a symbol of the modern festivity, where we all place gifts underneath it, exchanging them on Christmas day. Also central squares in cities, towns and villages are decorated with the Christmas Tree, reminding us of the festive atmosphere. However, not many know of its origins and why we decorate them. Here we will analyse the historical origins of this famous tradition.

Pagan Origins of the Christmas Tree
Dating back centuries before Christ, cultures brought evergreen trees, plants, and leaves into their homes upon the arrival of the winter solstice, which occurs in the northern hemisphere between December 21st and 22nd. Although the specific practices were different in each country and culture, the symbolization was generally the same: to celebrate the return of life at the beginning of winter's decline.
Egyptians particularly valued evergreens as a symbol of life's victory over death. They brought green date palm leaves into their homes around the time of the winter solstice.
Romans had a public festival called Saturnalia, which lasted one week beginning on December 17th, and included a variety of celebrations around the winter solstice. Curiously, the Roman winter solstice was marked on December 25th on the Julian calendar. These celebrations are thought to have merged with pagan practices of hanging mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log.
In Britain, the Yule log was originally seen as a magical amulet, and eventually made it into the hands of Father Christmas. In Italy the Yule log is still burned for the "Festa di Ceppo". In Catalonia, the log is wrapped in a blanket until Christmas Eve, when it's unwrapped and burned for the custom of "fer cagar el tio". And in Serbia, families bring the Yule log (known as a "badnjak") into their homes on Christmas Eve to be burned along with prayers to God to bring happiness, luck, and riches.
Druid priests in Great Britain also used evergreen plants and mistletoe in pagan ceremonies, and the mistletoe plant was the symbol of the birth of a god. Celtic Druids and Norseman of Scandinavia also used mistletoe in a mysterious ceremony just after the winter solstice.
In the mid 1500's, Germans began using evergreen trees as a symbol of hope for the coming of spring. This practice is likely to have gradually evolved from pagan rituals of past and merged with the celebration of Christmas leading to the tree's Christian beginnings.

Christian Origins
 Although it's unlikely that the Christmas tree as we know it today was first used in the 7th Century, some people believe the idea for the tree was invented by St. Boniface at that time. There are different legends regarding how St. Boniface invented the Christmas tree. Some claim he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to symbolize the Holy Trinity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to un-believers, and that these new converts began to worship the tree as a Christian symbol. Another version of this legend claims that St. Boniface chopped down an oak tree worshiped by pagans, and used a fir tree growing in the roots of the oak as a symbol of Jesus.
There are also claims that the first proper Christmas tree was erected in Riga, Latvia in 1510. Today, there is a plaque in the Town Hall Square in Riga that is engraved with the text "The First New Year's Tree in Riga in 1510". It is believed that this tree was burned during a New Year's celebration, and possibly decorated with paper flowers. However, it seems more likely that this celebration was related more to the Christmas tree's pagan past.
The most likely Christian beginnings of the modern Christmas tree were in the mid 1500's in Germany. In 1521 in the region of Alsace (formerly part of Germany), the first pine tree was decorated and used in a Christmas celebration. In 1539, in the Cathedral of Strasbourg, there are church records that state a Christmas tree was used for the Christmas celebration. And in 1570 there are reports from a Bremen guild chronicle that a fir tree was decorated with fruits and nuts which children ate on Christmas day.
In the 1700's the Christmas tree custom had spread throughout northern Germany and people began decorating the tree with candles that were lit on Christmas Eve, as is still done today in many homes across Europe. As the Christmas tree custom spread through Germany, the Roman Catholic Church eventually recognized it in the early 1800's. It was introduced to Vienna in 1816, quickly spreading across Austria, and in 1840 to France by the duchesse d'Orleans.
The Christmas tree was introduced separately in different US cities by German immigrants, most likely in the mid 1700's. Several US cities claim to have had the first Christmas tree in America. Bethlehem, PA appears to have had the first decorated Christmas tree in 1747 at the German Moravian Church settlement; however it was made by putting evergreen branches on a wooden pyramid! Windsor Locks, CT claims they have earliest date in 1777, while Easton, PA also claims the first Christmas tree in 1816! Since these first real Christmas trees, there have been many changes leading to today's modern Christmas tree!
Nevertheless, to most people the Christmas tree is fondly thought of as a symbol of Christmas, it's no stranger to controversy. In 1851 the pastor of a Cleveland church was condemned for engaging in a pagan practice by decorating a Christmas tree! Puritans actually banned Christmas in New England, and the Roman Catholic Church regarded the Christmas tree as a protestant custom until they realized its spread was beyond their control. Oliver Cromwell preached against decorating Christmas trees on such a "sacred event" as Christmas. And even today some Christian groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, are against the use of the Christmas tree.
But it doesn't stop there. In the year 2000 in Eugene, Oregon the city manager declared a Christmas tree could not be put on city property, because it was a religious symbol that violated the separation of church and state. In 2004 in the Bellevue City Hall, their Christmas tree was called a "giving tree" to make "everybody feel welcome". In 2005 the city of Boston began calling their Christmas tree a "holiday tree", and also in 2005 the hardware chain Lowe's began labelling their trees "holiday trees" and "family trees"! In all of these cases there was such strong public outrage that the decisions have been reversed; but the controversy still remains, with some believing the use of the Christmas tree in public places amounts to religious discrimination.

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