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Winter Solstice Evergreens and The History of the Christmas Tree

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Historic Evergreens

In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year (falling sometime between December 20 and 23) is called the Winter solstice. When ancient peoples observed the air becoming colder, the days getting shorter and the deciduous trees, bushes, and crops dying or hibernating for the winter, many became afraid that the sun was disappearing and that the Earth would eventually freeze. They also noticed that some plants and trees remained green all year long and believed that such trees and plants had magical powers that allowed them to withstand the cold of winter.

Evergreen trees and other plants that stay green all year round have always carried a special meaning for the various peoples of the world. Long before the advent of Christianity, peoples of many ancient civilizations decorated their homes with pine, spruce, and fir trees. In many of these cultures, it was believed that evergreen boughs, hung over doors and windows, would fend off witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and diseases.

Ancient peoples who worshiped the sun as a god believed that winter came when the sun god became sick and weak. The celebration of the winter solstice marked the time when the sun god would begin to regain his strength and evergreens served as reminders of the coming spring when the land would be green again.

Not having evergreen trees, the ancient Egyptians filled their homes with green date palm leaves to celebrate that their god, Ra, who was depicted as having the sun in his crown, was beginning to recover from his illness. The palm leaves symbolized the triumph of life over death.

To mark the occasion when their farms and orchards would once again be green and fruitful, the early Romans honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, with a winter solstice feast called the Saturnalia. They decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs and lights and exchanged symbolic gifts; coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps for lighting the journey of life.

In Great Britain, the woods priests of the ancient Celts, the Druids, used evergreens, holly and mistletoe as symbols of everlasting life during mysterious winter solstice rituals. They also placed evergreen boughs over their doors and windows to ward off evil spirits.

The Vikings of Scandinavia believed evergreens to be the special plant of their sun god, Balder. In the late Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians put evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope for the coming spring.

The modern Christmas tree, which is often mistakenly referred to as a “Pagan symbol,” (the Pagans believed that cutting down whole evergreen trees was destructive to nature) evolved from all of these early superstitions, customs and traditions.

The Legendary Origins of the Christmas Tree

Many of our modern Christmas customs, songs and traditions came from Germany, such as illustrations of Santa Claus, Christmas markets, shaped gingerbreads, tinsel, glass ornaments, and of course, Christmas trees.

The tradition of decorating a tree in celebration of Christmas originated in 16th century Germany. Legend has it that it Martin Luther, the German theologian and reformer who influenced Lutheran and Protestant doctrines, was the first to decorate an evergreen tree with lighted candles.

It is said that one night while walking through the woods and composing a sermon, he was awestruck by the beauty of evergreens shimmering in the snow under the stars. When he got home, he wanted to share his story with his children, so he brought in a small evergreen tree and decorated it with candles, which he lit in honor of the birth of Christ.

Although the first actual written record of a Christmas tree in 1604 dates well after Martin Luther’s death in 1564, this old story of the first Christmas tree is still widely believed and very popular.

Another Christmas tree legend, also from Germany and dating back to the 7th century, tells the story of St. Boniface, a monk from Devonshire who went to Germany to convert the German people to Christianity. It is said that when he found a group of Pagans worshiping an oak tree, he cut the oak down and a young evergreen began to grow from its roots. Taking this as a sign, St Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity; God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After that, the converts then revered the fir tree as God’s tree, just as they had previously revered the oak.

Christmas Trees in Early American History

The Christmas tree tradition as we know it today was most likely brought to the United States by Hessian troops during the American Revolution. According to a legend, a celebration around a Christmas tree in Trenton, New Jersey helped to turn the tide for Colonial forces in 1776. Hessian mercenaries, apparently feeling homesick after seeing a candlelit evergreen tree in the snow, left their guard posts to engage in merrymaking, which gave General Washington the opportunity to attack their position and defeat them.

The first actual record of Christmas trees being on display in America dates back to the 1830s, although the Pennsylvania German settlements had put up community evergreens in winter as early as 1747. But Christmas trees were not widely accepted in America until some time later. As recently as the 1840s, many Americans still thought of decorated evergreens as Pagan symbols.

To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. They condemned many customs associated with Christmas, such as the Yule log, holly, mistletoe, Christmas carols and Christmas trees, as “heathen traditions.” The Puritans believed that any joyful expression desecrated the sacred event of the birth of Christ.

William Bradford, the pilgrim’s second governor, tried to stamp out what he called the “Pagan mockery” of Christmas. In 1659, a law was enacted that made any observances of December 25, other than attending church services, illegal. Christmas “frivolity” was penalized and anyone, Puritan or not, caught hanging decorations or otherwise celebrating Christmas was fined 15 cents.

This joyless Christmas tradition of solemnity continued into the 19th century. Until 1870, Boston schools remained open on Christmas Day and students who stayed home could be expelled. As recently as 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio nearly lost his job when he decorated a Christmas tree in his church and his parishioners condemned it as a “pagan practice.”

The Modern American Christmas Tree

Christmas trees were first introduced in England by King George III’s German Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and by German merchants who lived in England. A few British families had Christmas trees but they were likely influenced by their German neighbors rather than the Royal Court. At the time, the German Monarchy was unpopular with the British public, so the Royal Court did not copy the Christmas tree, which is why they did not become widely fashionable in Britain.

In 1846, The Illustrated London News carried a sketch of Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous Royal family, Queen Victoria was very popular with her subjects and whatever the trendsetting Royals did at Court quickly became stylish in Britain as well as in the fashion-conscious cliques of Eastern American society.

By the 1890s, the popularity of Christmas trees was on the rise around America. Whereas the Europeans used small trees, the Americans preferred their Christmas trees tall enough to reach the ceiling. Most decorations were homemade. Young women spent hours quilling stars and snowflakes and sewing little pouches to hold secret gifts and treats, such as sugared almonds. They strung garlands with brightly dyed popcorn, interspersed with with nuts and berries. Wooden hoops were used to hold candles until the advent of electricity, which made it possible for Christmas trees to be lit continuously — and far more safely.

Silver tinsel, which tarnished easily, was invented in 1878. By the 1920s, however, it was made from lead because lead was cheaper and did not tarnish. Due to the danger of lead poisoning to children, lead tinsel was banned in the 1960s. Today’s tinsel is made exclusively from plastic.

In 1851, when a Catskill farmer named Mark Carr took two ox sleds filled with evergreen trees to New York City and promptly sold them all, the Christmas tree market was born. In 1890, F.W. Woolworth brought glass Christmas tree ornaments from Germany to the United States. The Christmas tree was beginning to catch on.

Christmas trees began appearing in town squares across the nation and having a Christmas tree in the home would soon become an American tradition. In the year 1900, one in five American homes had a Christmas tree. By the year 1920, they had become nearly universal.

President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) had the first Christmas tree in the White House in the 1850s. The National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn was started by President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) in 1923.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, nurseries were unable to sell evergreen trees for landscaping, so they cut them for Christmas trees. Because they were more symmetrical than trees growing in the wild, cultivated trees became preferred and the impromptu Christmas tree farms of the depression-era eventually became full-fledged businesses.

Artificial Christmas trees were first marketed in 1885 when a thirty-three limb tree, priced at 50 cents, could be ordered from Sears, Roebuck and Company. They were produced by brush manufacturers that employed the same techniques used in making brushes. Bristles of animal hair or plastic were dyed pine-green and inserted between twisted wires to form branches in graduated sizes, each with a color-coded tag at the base. The customer assembled the tree by inserting the color-coded branches into a wooden pole that acted as the trunk.

To prevent deforestation, tabletop feather trees made of dyed goose feathers originated in Germany in the 19th century. The Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog sold the first feather trees in America in 1913.

Artificial trees are very popular in the United States where synthetic Christmas trees can be found in 70% of homes. They are considered more convenient and hygienic (especially for those with allergies), and if they are used a number of times, they are less expensive over the long term. In most of Europe, however, artificial trees are considered tacky.

In the 1950s and 60s, metallic trees with all the same shape and color ornaments became the rage. The trees were made of aluminum-coated paper, which posed a fire hazard when Christmas lights were placed directly on them, so they were instead lit by a spotlight with a motorized color wheel in front of it.

The late 1970s saw a return to classic Victorian nostalgia, which was a refreshing change from the “space age” Christmas trees of the previous decades. Green trees were once again in demand and manufacturers created replicas of antique-style German glass ornaments, real silver tinsel and pressed foil decorations.

Today’s indoor artificial trees are often sold pre-strung with lights, which not only provide a consistent display of color and light, but also allow people to avoid the most unpleasant yearly task of untangling Christmas lights. Some pre-lit trees contain fiber optics, which are lighted by a single lamp at the base. Most fiber optic trees come with a rotating color wheel that creates a shimmering multicolored lighting effect.

Other modern Christmas tree gimmicks include talking or singing trees, trees that blow their own “snow” (Styrofoam beads) and inverted trees. Inverted Christmas trees were originally used in stores by merchants who wanted their customers to get a closer look at the ornaments and other decorations being sold. The idea caught on with some customers who thought that the inverted trees would allow larger presents to be placed underneath them.

The Multicultural Holiday Evergreen

Today, decorated evergreen trees are often the subject of political controversy. In recent years, as America has progressed toward greater religious tolerance and freedom, the governments of some cities and towns have declined to put up lighted and decorated evergreens because they fear that they might be in violation of the First Amendment. Other localities simply call their decorated evergreens “Holiday Trees” in order to be inclusive and respectful of their communities’ diversity.

Some Christians object to the idea of calling a decorated evergreen a “Holiday Tree,” believing that such a generic name is marginalizing to the Christian faith. But as their history demonstrates, decorated evergreens, which pre-date Christianity by thousands of years, were never exclusively Christian. Rather, the idea of decorating an evergreen tree in December is an ancient, multicultural notion whose meaning is as diverse as the variety of Christmas/Holiday tree styles available in stores today.

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About Margaret Romao Toigo

  • Eric Olsen

    fascinating! great report as always Margaret – love the background of tradtions and customs!

  • Thank you, Eric. It’s always nice to get a pat on the back from the man in charge.

  • GoHah

    I never would’ve thought artificial trees went back that far. Enjoyable history lesson–thanks

  • Greg Schoppe

    wait, what you just wrote boils down to: lighted, decorated trees were created by either Martin Luthor, or St Bonaface. How does that make it not a Christian tradition? The use of evergreen boughs as decoration is not the same, and is derived from a totally seperate tradition.

  • Well, of course decorated evergreens are a Christian tradition! They just aren’t exclusively so, having evolved from numerous ancient customs and beliefs.

    Indeed, the legends of Martin Luther and St. Boniface tell part of the story of how decorated evergreens might have become Christmas trees in world culture.

    It is interesting that both of those stories originated in Germany, where evergreens were decorated and worshiped by the ancient cultures of that land long before the advent of Christianity.

    Let us not forget that Christmas trees really didn’t catch on with Christians in America until the 1890s.

    Several centuries passed before the notions of our rather joyless Puritan forefathers, who condemned Christmas trees as a “heathen tradition,” would fade from our culture. Remarkably, there are a few Christian sects that still subscribe to this belief in the 21st century.

    Did you know that there is not one mention of a Christmas tree anywhere in the Bible? Perhaps this is the reason why the Puritans did not care too much for Christmas trees and why a few modern Christians still do not use Christmas trees in their celebrations of the Birth of Christ.

    So let’s not get all vainglorious and play that silly “War on Christmas” game (besides, it’s really nothing more than another holiday fund raising ploy). There’s no good reason to make assertions of Christian exclusivity with regard to decorated evergreens.

    In fact, the very lack of exclusivity makes decorated evergreens multicultural and therefore suitable and appropriate for governments to display as Holiday Trees that include everyone and marginalize no one.

  • Noga Yarnel

    Nine years ago while I was studying the Swedish language, I picked up a book on the history of Scandinavia. The book had a chapter on the Winter Solstice. It told the history of the one day out of the year where fornication was encouraged & freely allowed and there would be no consequences. Villagers would cut down a tree, erect it in their homes and decorate it with ornaments. The tree represented the male reproductive organ and the virgin females were forced to dance naked around it in order to guarantee their fertility. Also, they had to bow to the tree in worship and would put gifts underneath it to ensure that everyone did so.

    While living in Sweden, I pointed this to one of my room mates, a native Swede, who had been talking about wanting a Christmas tree. She responded to me by saying, “Oh, we all know where it came from. We still dance around the tree for tradition, too, but not nude and we don’t do it so that we can have sex freely! We are celebrating the birth of Jesus!”

    I was stunned, frankly, but over time I have discovered that this is the average Christian response: “As long as I’m celebrating Jesus, it is O.K.” That answer is very sad to me. Throughout the Bible, we read about people trying to incorporate paganism into worshiping God and God judges them for it. Idols are made, traditions are adopted, and even Rachel in the Bible sits on idols in order to try and keep them from being taken away.

    Scandinavians were not the only people to fashion trees inside their homes prior to celebrating the birth of Jesus. Egyptians worshiped evergreens and brought them inside their homes to celebrate life. The Druids of Great Britain used them in mysterious rituals and Germans brought them inside to remind them of the forthcoming spring and for fertile purposes.

    The original tree worship began around 2167 B.C. following Nimrod’s death. Babylonians believed that an evergreen tree sprung up right after his death, symbolizing Nimrod’s new after-life as a god. Each year on the anniversary of Nimrod’s birth, they claimed that Nimrod would visit the tree and place gifts beneath it. His birthday was near the end of December.

    The Bible warns us of these tree idols:
    Jeremiah 10:3, 4, “For the customs of the peoples are delusion; because it is wood cut from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. They decorate the tree with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers so that it will not totter.”

    Before the celebration of Christmas, December 25th was the Roman holiday of Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun). This was honoring the sun, which they worshiped, and called the sun “Sol” or “Mithras.” Originally, Mithras was a Persian god, but was incorporated into Roman beliefs in the first century B.C.

    From the 17th through the 23rd of December, the feast of Saturnalia was celebrated. Much like the Scandinavian fornication fest I wrote about above, Romans were allowed to be completely free with their sexual urges and could take part in fornication, homosexuality and sex with children without having to worry about any consequences.

    In Celtic tradition, during the Winter Solstice, the mistletoe was regarded as the semen of the trees and the berries were thought to contain spermatozoa of the pagan gods. Kissing under the mistletoe was believed to impregnate a woman magically.

    So, why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus during this time and why do we incorporate trees and mistletoe?

    Around 350 A.D., Pope Julius I declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25th. Constantine wanted a “Christian” Rome, so it was easier for pagan Romans to convert to Christianity if they would not have to lose their traditions and holidays.

    Did you know that our nation did not originally want any part of Christmas? The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower banned Christmas. It was not allowed to be celebrated because they knew it was pagan and offensive to God. In 1851, a Cleveland minister almost lost his position because he put up a tree in his church. Boston, Massachusetts schools stayed open on Christmas day through 1870 and expelled students that did not attend. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and in 1920, nearly everyone had one in their home.

    I often hear the words, “Well, we don’t know when Jesus was born, so that is why I celebrate his birth on December 25th.” Although, that answer still doesn’t explain the tree in their home! The Bible does tell us about the time when Jesus was born.

    First, we must look at John the Baptist because the Bible reads that Jesus was conceived six months after John was. John was conceived in late Sivan (May/June in our calendar – the Hebrew calendar days and months do not line up with ours). See Luke 1:5, 23, 24 which tells us that Zechariah had just returned from his Priestly services of the division of Abijah (see 1 Chronicles 23:10. King David created a schedule for priests to serve, so the division of Abijah would have finished their time in the month of Sivan). John was born 40 weeks later around Nissan 15 (during Passover – April/March in our calendar). The Jewish people still wait for Elijah to arrive during this time, and John was called a type of Elijah.

    Jesus was conceived 6 months after John was (Luke 1:24-27, Luke 1:36) which would put it around December in our calendar. Add 40 weeks. This would make Jesus born in September/October and he would have been born during the festival of Sukkot. This explains his birth outside of the hotels. How? For Sukkot, everyone was expected to travel to Jerusalem and the population of the metropolitan Jerusalem area would go from about 120,000 to an estimated 2 million people. Every home was filled with guests and hotels/motels would be reserved months ahead of time. Sukkot is done in remembrance of the 40 years wandering in the desert and they have to spend at least part of each day in a temporary dwelling outside (called a sukkah). At night, people who were not able to get a hotel room would sleep in a sukkah and the owner would provide them with food. This was not a barn or a place for animals. In fact there is not even mention of a manger (a trough to hold food for animals) in the original Greek, but refers to a tabernacle. The same word was used for the tray that was used in the sukkah to place food on. The Old English meaning of the word “manger” also meant tabernacle, but as the English language changed, so did our understanding, which has brought about severe misunderstanding. Now instead of a tabernacle/sukkah, we picture the Messiah sleeping in a dirty feeding trough for animals. We sing about it, have plays about it, and design nativity scenes around it, yet we haven’t taken the time ourselves to find out if it is true. In John 1:14, it reads that “Yeshua tabernacled with us,” not that he simply dwelt among us.

    Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, a suburb of Jerusalem. According to prophesy in Micah 5:2, the Savior would be born in Bethlehem.

    Now, for the shepherds.

    Luke 2:8-11 it reads: “There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before the shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

    If you read the history of Israel and know what the weather is like there, you will find that during the late summer and early fall, a farmer would hire shepherds to watch his flocks over night in order to properly fertilize the ground. There were never shepherds out in December and the sheep were brought in no later than October 15th.

    Jesus said in Mark 7:8,9, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”

    These are some of the reasons why I refuse to celebrate Christmas. I know this was long, but I want people to have the opportunity to read the truth about where their holidays come from and know what they are celebrating. There are stories of Christians in Germany as early as the 1500’s using the tree to honor “the trinity,” but this, once again, is simply taking pagan traditions and forcing them to “fit” into our own beliefs. In 1521, a German minister cried blasphemy at this practice and said, “Better that they should look to the true tree of life, Christ!”

    Thank you for your time.

  • Danie

    You mean,Offensive to “their God”, not God in general?

  • alex

    i did not read it but it sounds boring

  • richard

    boy u is ugly

  • richard

    i luv u

  • winona

    read most of yr article, i thought it was very informative. and you ass face commenting on how the author looks, fuck off.