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Our History: The Christmas tree originated in Germany

An ageless icon, the Christmas tree, the symbol of the rich and festive season we are about to enter, became our heritage not only by adoption but also clearly by choice.

Probably no holiday evokes the desire in each of us to recapture the wonder of childhood as does Christmas. Though there are many symbols equally awe-inspiring, the one that strikes the heart of the child in each of us is the Christmas tree. The tree, a much-loved sign of Christmas, has come to symbolize that holiday in nearly every country in the Western world. Yet, only a little more than a century ago Dickens would refer to the Christmas tree as "that pretty little German toy."

In the anthology of Christmas lore, the tree's origins emerge from such varied sources as the Paradise tree of the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the legends of St. Boniface, the Glastonbury thorn, the "kissing bunch" of merry England, and the "ceppo" of Italy. As a beloved custom its story through time has connections to the Assyrian tree of the "Great Light", the yule log of the Druids, the ancient myths of the Scandinavians, and the "Universe Willow" of the Chinese.

The idea of the Christmas tree spread slowly from Germany, the place of its origin, over a period of more than 250 years. Its precursor was the "paradise tree" which was revived in a new role from the medieval and mystery plays of long ago, when the fir tree or evergreen hung with apples represented the Garden of Eden and was a prop in those early religious presentations. The memory of that tree in the minds of young and old outlived the plays themselves, which were banned during the years of the Reformation.

Evergreens, which we still use today in our holiday decorations, as well as the tree, itself, have symbolized "eternal life" in ancient civilizations and the practice of using them as well as cones and herbs in the making of wreaths and garlands for rituals and festive occasions, dates well back before Christianity and can be traced to the Egyptians, Persians, Hebrews, and Oriental civilizations as well as the early Druids.

Attuned as they were to seasonal changes, ancient peoples observed that the sun reaches its low point in the Northern Hemisphere about Dec. 22, and from then on begins its slow ascent toward the Spring solstice. It was appropriate, therefore, that the Star of Bethlehem shone with a special brilliance signalling the end of darkness and would be interpreted as pointing the way to a spiritual rebirth. The Christmas season over the years developed secular as well as religious customs, combining themes and symbols in a blend to make up current Western traditions.

In the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries, Christmas was not generally celebrated and such celebrations were deplored by the Puritans, for example, who found the merrymaking of the season alien to their religious beliefs. The Dutch in New Amsterdam, however, despite their Calvinist leanings, celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6. Our jolly Santa Claus is derived from the diminutive of "Sint Niklaas."

In the days when the prime source of light was the candle, the lighting of candles in religious festivals came to represent "the Light of the World." In Germany, in each household many small candles would be placed on a pyramid of shelves of graduated width. Eventually this was elaborated upon and festive baubles and tinsel were added. Thus the "paradise tree" and pyramid of candles provided the inspiration for today's Christmas tree, and we can trace its origin to those earlier "trees" decorated with tapers and apples.

The Western part of Germany is credited with being the originator of the Christmas tree as we know it today. The fir, with its evergreen needles and pyramidal growth, was similar to the early wooden candle pyramids. For many years the Christmas pyramid was used side by side with the Christmas tree and may still be found in some parts of central Europe. The wooden pyramid was ideal because it could be stored from year to year and is reminiscent of our use today of the artificial tree.

The Christmas tree became a popular symbol in America in the 1840s after Price Albert, Queen Victoria's consort who came from Saxe Coburg in Germany, introduced it in England. The occasion was the birth of their first son. In 1848, a full page engraving appeared in the Illustrated London News with a description of the eight-foot fir tree with its eight tiers of branches embellished with dozens of wax tapers. Suspended from colorful ribbons were sweetmeats, fancy cakes, trays and cornucopias and baskets of varied and expensive treats including gilded gingerbread. The minutest of details was reported.

The idea of such a tree was not entirely new, for German settlers in England brought their tradition with them and other monarchs had enjoyed a kind of Christmas tree. What captivated the British at the time seems to have been the picture of domestic tranquility the royal family projected and the birth of a male heir, the new Prince of Wales.

Equally warm was the reception given to the idea in America when an illustration (somewhat modified in detail) was published in Godey's Lady's Book a short time later. The media, even in those days, had the power to set a fashion, and it has not waned to this day.

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