The Christmas Tree

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By Danielle O’Dwyer

Northern pagan tribes viewed the evergreen tree with reverence for its ability to survive the harshest winter conditions. During winter festivals greenery was used along with candles and fires to symbolise life and warmth in the midst of winter’s cold and darkness. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands to symbolise eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans, surviving their conversion to Christianity. They decorated doorways with evergreens at the turn of the New Year to scare away demons and they often set up trees for the birds in winter. For Northern Europeans, this winter celebration was a happy time of year because it signified that the shortest day of the year (occurring about December 21), had passed. They knew the days would start to get longer and brighter. These traditions have persisted and changed with the times; with the most well known symbol of a modern Christmas, the evergreen tree, decorated with strings of twinkling lights and shiny ornaments, and topped with a star.

The Christmas tree seems to have originated in Germany during the middle ages, as the main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve, which was a fir tree hung with apples. The tree was known as the ‘paradise tree,’ the apples were to represent the Garden of Eden. Germans set up paradise trees in their homes on December 24th – this day was seen as the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They also hung wafers on the tree which in Christianity are known as hosts (the sign of redemption in Christianity). As time passed the wafers were replaced by biscuits of various shapes, and candles, symbolic of Christ, were often added. In the same room German families also had a ‘Christmas pyramid,’ a triangular construction of wood with shelves to hold Christmas figurines that were decorated with evergreens, candles and a star. The star represents the Star of Bethlehem which led the wise men to Christ’s birth place. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged to become the Christmas tree. The popularity of Christmas and Christmas trees grew until the Reformation – a religious movement of the 1500′s, this movement gave birth to Protestantism. During the Reformation many Christians began to consider Christmas a pagan celebration because it included non religious customs. During the 1600′s, because of these feelings, Christmas was outlawed in England and the English colonies. But the old customs of feasting and decorating soon reappeared and blended with the Christian aspects of the celebration.

The custom of decorating homes with evergreen trees survived in Germany and they placed a Yule tree at the entrance to their homes or inside their houses during the midwinter holidays. The term Yule may have derived from the Germanic ‘jol’ or the Anglo-Saxon ‘geol’ which referred to the feast of the winter solstice.

The 19th century saw the Christmas tree become a deep rooted German tradition. It was also taken to North America by German settlers as early as the 17th century. Christmas trees were the height of fashion by the 19th century and they also became popular in other European countries like Austria and Switzerland. The Christmas tree was believed to have been reintroduced into England in the mid 19th century and was popularised by the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys, small gifts, candles and fancy decorated cakes which were hung from the branches by ribbons and paper chains. In countries like China and Japan Christmas trees were introduced by Western missionaries in the 19th century and were decorated with intricate paper designs. By the 1970′s the imitation Christmas tree became fashionable because it was low maintenance (it also came in other colours like silver), though over time the living evergreen tree regained its number one position for preferred tree in homes, with the imitation tree in second place.

To this day some form of Christmas tree sits is most homes; be it a fir or plastic tree. Decorating it with tinsel, lights, ornaments, home-made decorations, children’s projects, family heirlooms, and topping it off with a star or angel, is all part of every Christmas celebration.

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