Most people don’t realize that during Christmas they are surrounded by symbols that reach back into history. Take the Christmas tree, for example.
Centuries ago, Vikings and other peoples brought the evergreen into the house to bring life to the long winter. Today, we bring it in at the beginning of winter where it freshens the house before we are trapped inside until spring.
The tradition would be adapted by Christians, using the living tree to show the birth of Christ. Often topped with a star or angel and at times equated with the Tree of Life. Many traditions arose, from originally hanging it upside down, to Martin Luther supposedly coming up with lighting the true. But Christmas trees didn’t really catch on in America until the mid 1800s.
Some still don’t like the idea that it was once used by pagan cultures. However, the standard by which ex-pagan symbols are good and which are not is not always consistent. Many forms of crosses were used in various cultures (some like the Celtic cross were absorbed) and the Easter bunny had some mystical origins. What it once was doesn’t mean it is that now (the genetic fallacy for you logic buffs). Old signs and practices were occasionally appropriated, assuming they could be redefined in a way that could be used. In other words, some old tradition of launching people over a cliff wouldn’t fit in.
At this point the Christmas tree has become a fully Christmas tradition. Though many people who aren’t Christians still put up one as not to miss out on the gift-giving. Just want the perks of the religion and not the religion. Kind of like if Christians celebrated Hanukkah just to get more gifts.
So think about that as you gaze at your tree. There stands something that reaches back into centuries of traditions among thousands of people in many cultures. A piece of history, a message from the past, right in your living room.
[For more Christmas history, check out Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas.]
I just ran across a poster about the “Paradise Tree” and found this article:
an evergreen, usually a balsam or douglas fir, decorated with lights and ornaments as a part of Christmas
festivities. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands as a symbol of eternal life was an ancient
custom of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship, common among the pagan Europeans,
survived after their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn
with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during
Christmastime; it survived further in the custom, also observed in Germany, of placing a Yule tree at an
entrance or inside the house in the midwinter holidays.
The modern Christmas tree, though, originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval
play about Adam and Eve was a fir tree hung with apples (paradise tree) representing the Garden of Eden.
The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve.
They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition, the
wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, too, were often added as the symbol of Christ. In
the same room, during the Christmas season, was the Christmas pyramid, a triangular construction of wood,
with shelves to hold Christmas figurines, decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century,
the Christmas pyramid and paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.
The custom was widespread among the German Lutherans by the 18th century, but it was not until the
following century that the Christmas tree became a deep-rooted German tradition. Introduced into England in
the early 19th century, the Christmas tree was popularized in the mid-19th century by the German Prince
Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with candles, candies, and fancy cakes
hung from the branches by ribbon and by paper chains. Brought to North America by German settlers as early
as the 17th century, Christmas trees were the height of fashion by the 19th century. They were also popular
in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and The Netherlands. In China and Japan, Christmas trees, introduced by
western missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, were decorated with intricate paper designs.
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