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Tracing the origin of the Christmas tree

A central feature of the holidays in millions of homes around the world is a conifer decorated with ornaments and lights and with beautifully wrapped presents arranged beneath it. We know this as the Christmas tree.

As with so many traditions, the origin of this custom is conjectural. Some trace the practice to pagan celebrations before the time of Christ, despite the fact that Christ's name is now so closely associated with this tree.

We even have a biblical passage condemning the idea. In Jeremiah 10:2-4 of the King James Bible we find: "Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not."

This rejection of holiday decorations continued among many Christians in this country beginning with the Pilgrims. Indeed, in 1851 when Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland was the first to decorate a Christmas tree in an American church, his parishioners condemned the idea as a pagan practice and a few even threatened the pastor with harm.

But long before that in Europe, the tradition was a widespread celebration. Some even trace cutting down a fir tree to a rejection of pagan Norse gods by St. Boniface in the seventh century. By the 16th century, decorating a tree in the center of town was a regular holiday feature in Latvia, Estonia and northern Germany. In fact, the American Christmas Tree Foundation fixes the date and place of its choice for the very first Christmas tree as 1510 in Riga. If you accept that date, this year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of this event.

In the 19th century, Queen Victoria's husband, Albert, brought the tradition to England and, as he became popular, having Christmas trees in homes became popular as well.

German soldiers carried the practice to Canada even earlier. In 1781, the Brunswicker Gen. Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife displayed a holiday tree in their home decorated with candles and fruit.

But what tree is the appropriate Christmas tree? Bill Hilton, who writes delightful weekly essays about his activities at the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in South Carolina, makes the case for the balsam fir and I agree. In Carolina, however, he has to make do with the quite similar Fraser fir, a more southern species named for the Scottish botanist and explorer, John Fraser. In about 1800, Fraser collected seeds from these trees in the southern Appalachians and took them to England where they were propagated. Thus today ornamental Fraser firs often serve as English Christmas trees as well.

The lovely pervasive scent of the firs is enough alone to make them the best choice for me. But longer-needled pines are often used today as well.

It is a bit late to comment on choosing a tree, but I repeat some of the standard suggestions. Bend a few needles to see that they are springy. Run a finger along a branch to see that the needles don't loosen easily. Lift the tree and bang it on the ground: it should shed few needles.

To best maintain your tree, provide it with water. Your tree has lost the roots that draw moisture up into its system, but it will continue to lose water through its needles. If you stand the tree in water, it will draw up as much as a quart or two a day and stay fresh much longer.


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