By Ankita Gupta
The first image that springs to the mind when Christmas nears is that of an evergreen tree, decked in jingle bells, icy tinsel, bright lights with presents around it and Santa Claus decked in a white beard, green eyes and ruddy cheeks. The tree is symbolic of the spirit of Christmas and is fondly regarded as the ‘Reason for the Season.’
The Pagan history of the tree
In the Pre-Christian era, the evergreen fir tree was traditionally used in the winter festival of Saturnalia. When the winter solstice drew near, and the plants started to perish, the pagans would hang evergreen boughs over their windows and doors. In ancient times, evergreens branches were hailed as talismans that would ward off witches, evil spirits and maladies. During the longest night, which is known to be the modern day winter solstice, the antediluvian man worried that the sun god was ailing and weak. They celebrated the day to wish the sun a quick recovery. Cherry and hawthorn plants were placed in pots and brought inside the house. This was known to cast a sympathetic spell and make the people believe that spring is around the corner.
The early Romans marked the solstice with a feast to honour Saturn, God of harvest and periodic renewal. They believed that the solstice was synonymous with green farms and fruitful orchards. So they decorated their houses and temples with evergreen branches to welcome a happy harvest. Even in Northern Europe, the Celtic priests and mysterious Druids would bedeck their temples with fir, pines and hedges to worship everlasting life. Even the fierce Vikings regarded the earliest Christmas trees as gifts from their sun god, Balder.
A German retelling of the Christmas tree
In Germany, the famous 16th-century religious reformer, Martin Luther King is often credited with the initiation of Christmas tree tradition. On a cold winter night, while treading through a forest, Luther saw starlight twinkling amidst an evergreen tree. Awed by the luminescence, he wanted to replicate the scene for his family. So he erected a tree in the main room and ornamented the branches with lighted candles. But the Germanic connection of the tree dates further back.
Legend has it that St. Boniface of Crediton, a small village in Devon UK, travelled to Germany and used the evergreen tree in an effort to Christianize the German tribes in the 8th century. He is believed to have dedicated the fir tree (Tannenbaum) to the Christ Child, as a replacement to the pagan oak tree of Odin. An image from Germany in 1521 depicts the Christmas tree being paraded through the cobbled streets with a horse-riding gentleman in a toe. The man is attired as a bishop and is probably a representation of St. Nicholas. There is also a record of an evergreen tree in Breman, Germany from 1570. It is set in the guild house and decorated with edible items like nuts, apples, pretzels and paper flowers.
The Christian theory
To the Christians, the triangular shape of the conifer tree was symbolic of the Holy Trinity comprising of Father, Sun and Holy Spirit. Instead of being an object of worship, the Christmas tree was cherished as a pointer to Jesus. Many followers believed that the star which adorned the top of the tree was a representation of Archangel Gabriel. Others likened it to the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas Star which guided the Magi from the East.
A darker theory links the Christmas tree to the cross on which Christ was crucified. The Greek word Xulon, which is used in the New Testament also translates to ‘tree’ or ‘wood.’ In another analogy from the Old Testament, the Messiah is prophetically symbolized as a Tree. He is seen as “The Branch of the Lord” and as the “Righteous Branch.” Jesus is also portrayed as a branch that will grow from the cut-down stump of the house of David and bear fruit. For several years now, the Christians have rejoiced in the tree as a reminder of the glory of Christ.
The popularity of the Christmas tree is evident from a sketch featured in Illustrated London News. It showed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert standing with their children around a Christmas tree. The picture became a rage amongst her subjects- not only in Britain but in all of the world.
An American warming
In its early stages, the Christmas tree was regarded as a ‘pagan mockery.’ To the English Puritans, who considered Christmas to be a sacred festival, the evergreen tree was regarded as a frivolity. Carols, ornamented trees and joyful celebrations were condemned as desecrations.In 1659, a law was enacted in Massachusetts, making any Christmas observance, apart from the church service, a criminal offence. Citizens were fined heavily for hanging decorations. This stern observance continued until the 19th Century.
It was the Dutch and German immigrants who brought the tradition of the Christmas tree in the New World in the 1800’s. The rowdier, alcohol-induced Christmas traditions like wassailing (a drinking ritual) were happily substituted for exchanging gifts around a Christmas tree. The early 20th century saw Americans, decking their Christmas trees with home-made trinkets, while the German-Americans decorated their trees with marzipan cookies, apples and nuts.
A Calvin and Hobbes and Charlie Brown Christmas
The Europeans prefer to celebrate Christmas with small trees about four feet in height. Americans, on the other hand, liked their Christmas Trees to be tall, reaching from the floor to ceiling. The Christmas tree has become a popular homely element in cartoons and movies. Calvin wishes to have a huge Christmas tree dreaming eagerly about all the loot that would fit under it. He writes a poem about Christmas which goes “…the Christmas tree, is decorated festively. With tiny dots of coloured light, that cosy up this winter night.”
Even the adorable Charlie Brown from Peanuts teaches us a valuable Christmas lesson, where he gives up a large aluminium for a tiny, sparse-foliaged sapling, saying “I won’t let commercialisation ruin my Christmas. I will take this little tree home and decorate it. And it will work.” The Christmas tree continues to bring joy into the lives of millions of people as an eternal beacon of hope.
Featured Image Credits: VisualHunt
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