O Christmas Tree

Another Christmas has come and gone, and, as we relax in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s (or possibly go straight back to work), our Christmas trees are looking a bit lonely with all of the presents they recently sheltered now opened and taken away.  Or, if you have children, they may all still be scattered around your floor. 

But consider that Christmas tree (Unless you’re way too on the ball and have already put all of your decorations away.  In which case, I hate you…no offense.).  What is it doing in our homes in the first place?  Sure, some people have houseplants, but why are we chopping down sizable trees and sitting them in our living rooms?  Or even more ridiculously, why are we assembling fake trees in our houses?  What does any of this have to do with Christmas?

To answer this question, I took to the Internet and found several sites that kinda sorta agree with each other; although, some of the details are a bit fuzzy.  Let’s start with what we can say with relative certainty.  The modern Christmas tree tradition came from Germany.

Dating back to the 16th Century and possibly even earlier, Germans would bring trees into their homes and decorate them to celebrate either Christmas, the Festival of Adam and Eve, or the coming Spring, depending on which site you want to believe.  A popular legend states that Martin Luther was the first to decorate a tree with lights (candles in this case) around the year 1500, but this, like most legends, is probably false.

While the practice of decorating trees for Christmas was popular in Germany, it didn’t catch on in England, Canada, and the United States until the 19th Century during the reign of Queen Victoria.  Victoria’s Royal Consort, Prince Albert, was German, and in the 1840s, a sketch of the royal family decorating a Christmas tree ran in the British press and eventually made its way across the Atlantic.  As is true today, people wanted to emulate the royals, so tree decorating quickly spread in popularity. 

This is not to say that the Christmas tree was unknown in Britain, Canada or the United States before this.  King George III’s wife was German and had Christmas trees in the palace in 1800, and German settlers and soldiers brought the Christmas tree tradition with them to Canada and the US in the 18th Century.  Until Victoria and family were sketched with their tree, though, the practice was not widespread in England and the former colonies.

As for the origin of the Christmas tree itself, things are a bit more murky.  Some form of tree decorating predates Christianity, and the Bible warns against it in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 10:2-4, for those who want to look it up.).  These verses were used by the Puritans in both England and the US to argue against the decorating of Christmas trees.  The verses do not, however, specifically mention which group was decorating said trees and instead uses the generic word “Heathen” (In the King James’ version, at any rate). 

Many early cultures did have celebrations and practices that involved decorating plants, though.  The Egyptians would bring palms into their home (there being a distinct lack of Douglas firs along the Nile) to symbolize the recovery of the sun god, Ra, after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  Romans had the feast of Saturnalia, which is often cited as a precursor to Christmas (And is the source of controversy in some place even today.  For example, HERE) and celebrated the Solstice as well.  During Saturnalia, Romans would use evergreens to decorate their homes.  Additionally, there are records of Druidic and Viking festivals that involved using evergreens for decorations.

So really decorating a tree is only a part of Christmas because we say that it is.  Whatever its origins, I can’t imagine Christmas without it.  Pulling out the tree parts (Yes, I use a fake one), putting it together, and decorating it with my children is one of the parts of the Christmas season I look forward to the most…except when the damn light strands aren’t cooperating.  My fleet of starship ornaments on my tree don’t have anything to do with the birth of a deity, but for me they have everything to do with Christmas.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter