Although the Christmas tree has for almost four centuries been closely associated with the annual Christian festival, its antecedents almost certainly lie elsewhere. Indeed the idea of a decorated tree at this time of year may even predate the birth of Christ. Nor is its source the late-year Jewish festival of Hanukkah dating from a century and a half still earlier.
Instead it was probably first related to the winter solstice, which this year occurs this evening, Dec. 21.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived 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.”
The winter solstice, that annual day of least sunlight, may not seem to us to deserve celebration, but the ancient Druids of Great Britain were evidently of a different mind. These pagans, active long before Julius Caesar invaded their country in 55 BCE, decorated sacred oak trees with candles and gilded apples to mark the event.
Be that as it may, the Christmas tree as we now know it, the evergreen with candles representing the Star of Bethlehem, came to this country from Germany. Evergreens had long been a symbol of survival in Europe.
For that reason we have, for example, the French arborvitae or tree of life, the tree we more commonly know as the white cedar. Then in the 8th century St. Boniface dedicated the fir tree to the infant Jesus, effectively replacing the oak as a religious symbol.
Although the first written record of bringing trees inside the home dates from 1604, some believe that Martin Luther did so 60 years earlier. Whether or not it was Luther, surely someone at that time was as awed as we continue to be by the beauty of a lovely evergreen silhouetted against a moonlit sky, twinkling stars and snow.
In 1747 the German Moravian community of the appropriately named Bethlehem, Pa., introduced the Christmas tree. However, the “tree” was a table-top wooden triangle to which conifer boughs were attached. Only over time did the size increase and real trees replace the wooden frames, probably as more decorations were added.
While the trees grew larger, so did the need for support. In 1876, two Philadelphians patented the Christmas tree stand, a three-legged iron holder. Its description fits exactly the heavy old tripod that my father brought in from the barn each year to brace our tree. This ugly monstrosity, mounted on a big oak panel to give it stability, was always disguised by a bed sheet, carefully arranged to represent snow at the base of the tree. Around it an electric train ran continuously.
Early decorations – gingerbread Santas, pretzels, marzipan and strings of raisins, sugar-encrusted nuts and popcorn – began to give way in the 1860s to commercial ornaments – wax cherubs, woodcarvings, colored paper flowers, puppets, isinglass drums and such. In 1878, tinsel icicles were introduced and the real candles that caused so many tragic accidents were slowly replaced after Thomas Edison’s lab assistants strung electric lights on their Menlo Park tree in 1882.
In the late 19th century, sweet-smelling cedars were the preferred trees, but they dropped needles too quickly. Next came hemlocks; they proved too pliant to hold ornaments. Then followed pines and spruces until balsam firs gained the favor they retain today in New England – and in my own heart. In other areas they are not as popular: Scotch pines are widely favored, but in the far west Douglas firs and in the South white pines are the best sellers.
Conservationists support the use of natural trees instead of those plastic or metal substitutes, because Christmas tree plantations provide prime wildlife habitat. In our Southern Tier, for example, they harbor nesting vesper and clay-colored sparrows and prairie warblers, all of which are rare elsewhere in this region.
And that Star of Bethlehem that led to the manger and now rises atop so many Christmas trees? Astronomers record a rare conjunction of our brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus, in what is now dated 7 BCE.