The Christmas season is here and we’re all beginning the much-anticipated, sometimes stressful and often-times expensive process of ‘decorating’ for the holiday. From the balsam wreath on the front door to the strings of garlands, lights and, of course, the TREE, it can be an exhausting and exasperating project.
Today, however, we seem to have grown away from the traditional freshly-cut fir tree decorated with ornaments that have been collected over the years, or handed down from generation to generation. Instead, we seem to have gravitated toward artificial trees, with trendy decorating themes, that change each year … which is fine, I guess. But I’m a traditionalist. For me, every tree is unique in its imperfection, and every ornament should have a story to tell. Of course, I’ve been guilty of that last minute box-of- a-dozen-red-balls purchase, but be assured those are the last ornaments to go on the tree, if they make it there at all.
But, why a tree? When did we decide to bring this outdoor living plant indoors and decorate it? And why December … not January or February? There are so many traditions that we keep alive today, but why?
Let’s start with Adam and Eve. This parable, with which we are all familiar, signifies life and family, and takes place in the “Garden of Eden” where we find the symbolic “Tree of Life”. Whether you follow this doctrine or not, in Medieval times, European Christians did, to the point of bestowing sainthood on Adam and Eve. During that period, every saint was honored with their special communicant service or Mass … St. Thomas had Thomasmass, St. Michael had Michaelmass, Christ had Christmass, etc. The commemorative Mass of St. Adam and St. Eve was on December 24th, the day before the celebration of the birth of Christ (Christmass).
In other parts of the world, pagan groups believed that evergreens symbolized eternal life. While other plants and trees died, the evergreen tree remained continually alive. Because of this phenomena, evergreens were revered. These Pagan civilizations also considered the sun a living god and were fearful of the darker winter months when the days were their shortest. Many pagan groups would, beginning on the shortest day of the year, December 21st, hang evergreens over their doors and windows to keep away evil spirits, and celebrate the slow return of the Sun’s strength.
Now let’s combine the Christian tradition with the Pagan belief. It seems the worshiping of evergreens and, in particular, the fir tree, collided with the conversion of both the Christian and Pagan rituals. There are some who believe that the church tried unsuccessfully to drive the tree cult out of people’s consciousness. Ultimately, instead of ‘fighting them’, the church decided to ‘join them’ and incorporated the decorated evergreen tree, called a ‘Paradise Tree‘, into the religious celebration of the Christ child.
It was actually the Scandinavians who were the first to bring the evergreen tree inside the home and decorate it. And it was the Germans who were the first to light the tree with candles. They decorated their Paradise Tree with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, cookies to represent the Eucharistic host and candles to represent Christ lighting up the world. There is, however, a legend which says it was Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, who was the first to add lighted candles to a tree. While walking home one evening, Reverend Luther was amazed by the brilliant stars twinkling in the heavens. To recapture that scene for his family, he tied lighted candles onto the branches of the tree in his drawing room.
It was well over a hundred years before this tradition of decorating and lighting a “Tree” spread to other parts of Europe and became widely accepted. Contrary to popular believe, it was not Prince Albert, but Queen Victoria’s grandmother, German-born Charlotte, who brought this German custom with her to England when she married King George III. Reports were that Queen Charlotte had an evergreen tree at Windsor Castle, which stood in a large tub in the middle of her drawing room. It was decorated with fruit and lit by candles, with plenty of toys for the children, who were completely enchanted by the spectacle. This decorated TREE became an annual tradition for the Royal family.
It wasn’t, however, until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began celebrating Christmas with a decorated tree that the rest of Britain adopted this concept of celebrating Christmas. Wanting to emulate everything this Royal couple did, by the end of the 1850s it was a well established Christmas custom to have a decorated evergreen tree in the home of all Brits. It is also believed that Victoria and Albert were the first to have manufactured decorations for their Christmas tree, imported from Germany. Each year, Albert continued to spread the tradition by donating trees to schools, army barracks and royal estates. A tradition which continues to this very day.
German settlers to the new World took the custom of decorated Christmas trees with them as early as the 17th century. By the 19th century, Christmas trees were popular not only in the new World, but in the rest of Europe. Missionaries took the custom of Christmas and decorated trees with them to China and Japan. So by the 20th century, the tradition of a decorated evergreen tree in your home to celebrate Christmas had become a socially accepted custom.
Whether you’re a traditionalist like me, or someone who follows the annual decorating trend, did you ever think that by putting up and decorating your Christmas tree, you would effectively be transforming your living room into a place of pagan ritual?