The Library at Pemberley by Sharon Lathan, Novelist

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Christmas Tree
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Sharon Lathan
Kentucky
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January 26, 2014 - 10:13 PM
Member Since: April 24, 2011
Forum Posts: 216
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King Tut never saw a Christmas tree, but he would have understood the tradition which traces back long before the first Christmas. The Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshiped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrived, 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.

 

According to Church records, Saint Boniface in the 7th century attempted to Christianize the indigenous Germanic tribes by introducing the notion of Trinity by using the cone-shaped evergreen trees because of their triangular appearance. The converted people began to revere the Fir tree as God’s Tree, as they had previously revered the Oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity.

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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. 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. There are numerous records of trees popping up in German houses and churches from this time on.

 

It would remain a largely German and Protestant tradition until 1815 when Princess Henrietta introduced the custom to the court in Vienna. From there it began the spread across Europe. A visitor to Strasbourg in 1601 records a tree decorated with “wafers and golden sugar-twists (Barleysugar) and paper flowers of all colours.” The early trees were biblically symbolic of the Paradise Tree in the Garden of Eden. The many food items were symbols of plenty and the flowers originally only red for knowledge and white for innocence.

 

tree.jpgIn Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced by King George III’s Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz but did not spread much beyond the royal family. Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with the custom. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote, “After dinner…we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room…There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…” After her marriage to her German cousin, Prince Albert, the custom became even more widespread. In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.”

 

The 1860s English Tree became more innovative than the delicate trees of earlier decades. Small toys were popularly hung on the branches, but still most gifts were placed on the table under the tree. By the 1870s, glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Lauscha. It became a status symbol to have glass ornaments on the tree; the more one had the better one’s status! Still many homemade things were seen. The Empire was growing and the popular tree topper was the Nation’s Flag, even Christmas Trees patriotic! The 1880s saw a rise of the Aesthetic Movement. At this time Christmas Trees became a glorious hotchpotch of everything one could cram on; or by complete contrast the aesthetic trees which were delicately balanced trees with delicate colors, shapes, and style. They also grew to floor standing trees. Still a status symbol, the larger the tree the more affluent the family which sported it. It was a case of ‘anything goes’. Everything that could possibly go on a tree went onto it. By 1900 themed trees were popular. A color theme set in ribbons or balls, a topical idea such as an Oriental Tree, or an Egyptian Tree. They were to be the last of the great Christmas Trees for some time. With the death of Victoria in 1901, the nation went into mourning and fine trees were not really in evidence until the nostalgia of the Dickensian fashion of the 1930s. Fanciful trees would again flourish and there was no turning back from the custom!

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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. 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. America being so large tended to have pockets of customs relating to the immigrants who had settled in a particular area, and it was not until the communications really got going in the 19th century that such customs began to spread. Thus references to decorated trees in America before about the middle of the 19th century are very rare.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.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How lovely are your branches.
In summer sun and winter snow,
A dress of green you always show.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
With happiness we greet you
When decked with candles once a year,
You fill our hearts with yuletide cheer.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
With happiness we greet you

 

O Tannenbaum is a traditional German poem/song of unknown origin dating to at least 1550. Placed to folk tunes a number of times, the lyrics differing in various incarnations and translations, it still remains the classic ode to the fir tree!

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