We all know the purpose of the day we call Christmas. At least we think we do. To put it precisely, we’re celebrating the birth of the most important person of all time. In fact, we’re celebrating the birth of the person who changed the way we measure time. We’re celebrating Jesus’ birth.
But what’s all that rigamarole we go through before Christmas? The gift giving, the family celebrations, the Christmas tree, the lights, in other words, the traditions?
Let’s start with the tree. Even in countries where they don’t have fir or pine trees, they put up fir or pine trees at great expense. They decorate them with ornaments and lights, and tinsel. But why?
The fir tree has a long association with Christianity, it began in Germany almost 1,000 years ago when St Boniface, who converted the German people to Christianity, was said to have come across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. In anger, St Boniface is said to have cut down the oak tree and to his amazement a young fir tree sprung up from the roots of the oak tree. St Boniface took this as a sign of the Christian faith. But it was not until the 16th century that fir trees were brought indoors at Christmas time.
But the Christmas Tree hs ancient origins…
King Tut never saw a Christmas tree, but he would have understood the tradition which traces back long before the first Christmas, says David Robson, Extension Educator, Horticulture with the Springfield Extension Center.
The Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrive, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life’s triumph over death.
The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. They decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one’s journey through life.
Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. The Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and place evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.
Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. Our modern Christmas tree evolved from these early traditions.
Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. One crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth.
The Christmas tree tradition most likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio, adds Robson.
But the custom spread slowly. The Puritans banned Christmas in New England. Even as late as 1851, a Cleveland minister nearly lost his job because he allowed a tree in his church. Schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870, and sometimes expelled students who stayed home.
The Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.
Christmas tree farms sprang up during the depression. Nurserymen couldn’t sell their evergreens for landscaping, so they cut them for Christmas trees. Cultivated trees were preferred because they have a more symmetrical shape then wild ones.
A PROTESTANT INVENTION
Not until the Renaissance are there clear records of trees being used as a symbol of Christmas—beginning in Latvia in 1510 and Strasbourg in 1521. Legend credits the Protestant reformer Martin Luther with inventing the Christmas tree, but the story has little historical basis.
The most likely theory is that Christmas trees started with medieval plays. Dramas depicting biblical themes began as part of the church’s worship, but by the late Middle Ages, they had become rowdy, imaginative performances dominated by laypeople and taking place in the open air. The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve. Thus, as part of the play for that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a “paradise tree” hung with fruit.
These plays were banned in many places in the 16th century, and people perhaps began to set up “paradise trees” in their homes to compensate for the public celebration they could no longer enjoy. The earliest Christmas trees (or evergreen branches) used in homes were referred to as “paradises.” They were often hung with round pastry wafers symbolizing the Eucharist, which developed into the cookie ornaments decorating German Christmas trees today.
The custom gained popularity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, against the protests of some clergy. Lutheran minister Johann von Dannhauer, for instance, complained (like Tertullian) that the symbol distracted people from the true evergreen tree, Jesus Christ. But this did not stop many churches from setting up Christmas trees inside the sanctuary. Alongside the tree often stood wooden “pyramids”—stacks of shelves bearing candles, sometimes one for each family member. Eventually these pyramids of candles were placed on the tree, the ancestors of our modern Christmas tree lights and ornaments.
It also took a long time for trees to become associated with presents. Though legend connects the idea of Christmas gifts with the gifts the Magi brought Jesus, the real story is more complicated. Like trees, gifts were first a Roman practice—traded during the winter solstice. As Epiphany, and later Christmas, replaced the winter solstice as a time of celebration for Christians, the gift-giving tradition continued for a while. By late antiquity it had died out, although gifts were still exchanged at New Year’s.
Gifts were also associated with St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey), who became famous for giving gifts to poor children. His feast day (December 6) thus became another occasion for gift exchanges. During the early Middle Ages, Christmas gifts most often took the form of tributes paid to monarchs—although a few rulers used the holiday season as an opportunity to give to the poor or to the church instead (most notably Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia, whose story inspired the popular carol, and William the Conqueror, who chose Christmas 1067 to make a large donation to the pope).
Like trees, gifts came “inside” the family around the time of Luther, as the custom of giving gifts to friends and family members developed in Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Often these were given anonymously, or hidden. One Danish custom was to rewrap a gift many times with different names on each wrapper, so that the intended recipient was only discovered when all the layers were opened.
In the English-speaking world, the union of gifts, trees, and Christmas was due to the influence of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, a native of Saxony (now part of Germany). German immigrants had brought the custom of Christmas trees with them in the early 1800s, but it spread widely after Victoria and Albert set up an elaborate tree for their children at Windsor Castle in 1841. At this point, Christmas presents were usually hung on the tree itself.
German and Dutch immigrants also brought their traditions of trees and presents to the New World in the early 1800s. The image of happy middle-class families exchanging gifts around a tree became a powerful one for American authors and civic leaders who wished to replace older, rowdier, and more alcohol-fueled Christmas traditions—such as wassailing—with a more family-friendly holiday. This family-centered image was widely popularized by Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, known today as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” (which also helped give us our modern picture of Santa Claus).
As many of us make trees and gifts the center of our own Christmas practice, we would do well to remember that they are ultimately symbols of the One who gave himself to unite heaven and earth, and who brings all barren things to flower.
All of this explains the traditions of Christmas, but what is the defining, uniting theme? It all boils down to preparation. Preparation, during Advent, for the coming of our Lord and Savior, the Christ Child. Let us keep this in mind, as we go about our family traditions. It is all in preparation for celebrating our Lord’s birth.