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By Betty Vanderwielen

Christmas Trees and How They Have Grown


Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Though almost every Christmas tree uses some form of electric lights, the huge variety of ornaments and garlands and special decorations is what makes every family's Christmas tree unique.

SEELEY LAKE – Decorated trees are an almost indispensable part of modern Christmas festivities. Where did the custom originate? Why do people perpetuate it? And to what extremes has it been carried?

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most expensively decorated Christmas tree was erected and displayed in the hotel atrium of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi in 2010. Amid traditional lights and ornaments, the 43-foot artificial evergreen tree was adorned with necklaces, earrings, watches and other pieces of jewelry. A total of 181 gems – diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires and other precious stones – sparkled on the tree.

That $11 million tree and its simpler cousins found in homes and businesses around the world have roots that reach back to the beginning of recorded history. The English word evergreen, and its similar correlates in other languages, indicates the reverence early peoples felt for trees that symbolized life in the dead of winter. Different early religions performed different winter ceremonies but many of them included decorating homes or temples with evergreen boughs.

Initially rejected by Christianity as a pagan ritual, the practice of decorating trees at Christmas time eventually established Christian connections. According to a legend dating from the eighth century, St. Boniface chopped down an oak tree sacred to Odin. When no retribution came from the Norse god, the event was considered a sign of Christianity's triumph over paganism. Boniface then pointed to an evergreen tree and told the people to take similar trees into their homes as symbols of peace and immortality. Other historians trace the origin of the Christmas tree to the 12th century medieval religious plays enacted to teach doctrine to largely illiterate congregations. The Play of Adam was performed on the doorsteps of churches and cathedrals, probably during the Christmas season. Staging directions for the Paradise section of one of the plays reads, "Let there be various trees, and fruits hanging on them, so that the place may seem as delightful as possible." ["Medieval Drama" by David Bevington]

The tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, popularly associated with the apple tree, played a prominent part in the Adam and Eve story from the Bible. Since fruit-laden trees were not available for winter performances, it is believed that evergreen trees were substituted and ornamented with red ball-shaped ornaments representing apples. Such trees were called Paradise Trees.

Though acknowledges some confusion in the translation of key words, it relies on Bernd Brunner's book "Inventing the Christmas Tree" for a discussion of the earliest written account of a decorated tree. Brunner cites a 1419 document associated with the Frieburg Fraternity of Baker's Apprentices. It describes a tree "decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread and tinsel" in the local Hospital of the Holy Spirit.

By 1561 the practice of cutting down trees and decorating them for display in the home had become so widespread that officials in the Upper Alsace region of France deemed it necessary to pass an ordinance forbidding citizens from taking more than "one pine, in the length of eight shoes."

Brunner also cites a 1570 source from Bremen, Germany, that mentions a tree "placed in the guild hall and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers." He further reports, "For the Christmas celebration the children were allowed to shake the tree as they would have during the fall harvest. Sometimes these decorated trees were carried in processions and the poor were allowed to plunder the fruits and baked goods before everyone began to dance."

Another legend credits the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther with introducing lighted candles on the tree. According to the story, while out walking in winter Luther was awed by the sight of stars twinkling through the boughs of the evergreen trees. In an effort to recapture the beauty of the scene, he erected a tree in his home and wired candles onto the boughs.

While Christmas tree decorating continued to gain popularity in Europe and especially Germany, English Protestants and Puritan New Englanders condemned the practice. Oliver Cromwell lumped it together with caroling and other manifestations of Christmas festivity and declared them "heathen traditions."

Bruce Colin Daniels' book "Puritans at Play" explains the Puritan attitude toward Christmas. Daniels writes that the Puritans referred to Christmas Day as "Foolstide." They insisted Scripture named only the Sabbath as a day to be held holy and made no mention at all of the specific date of Jesus' birth. In 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts passed a law declaring it a penal offense for anyone to participate in any observance other than a church service on Dec. 25. Anyone caught with a decorated tree incurred a fine.

British attitudes towards Christmas tree decorating underwent a major change during the reign of Queen Victoria. As a treat for their children, Victoria encouraged her husband Prince Albert to bring a tree into the palace and decorate it with "sweets, ornaments, candles and an angel" as had been done during his childhood in Germany. explains, "Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable-not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society."

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Though many people prefer the relative convenience of an artificial tree, many others still enjoy going into the forest to chop down a tree themselves and bring it home for decorating.

After an 1864 issue of the Illustrated London News published a photo of the royal family around their Christmas tree, elite circles in Britain and America outdid one another with increasingly fanciful trees. Less elite Americans decorated their trees with strings of popcorn alternating with berries and nuts and other homemade ornaments. German-Americans often continued their heritage tradition of using apples, nuts and marzipan cookies as decorations.

In 1882, inventor Edward Hibberd Johnson, a friend and business associate of Thomas Edison, created a string of electrical bulbs to replace the wax candles commonly used on Christmas trees.

A reporter for the Detroit Post and Tribune who visited the Johnson home that Christmas described the lights as red, white and blue bulbs "about as large as an English walnut." Johnson's tree spun in a circle on a little pine box producing "a continuous twinkling of dancing color." The reporter concluded, "One cannot imagine anything prettier."

What would Johnson have said, had he time-traveled to the Emirates Palace in 2010?


Reader Comments

munozclan writes:

Great article!


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