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Evergreen Down The Ages
The Christmas Tree

A beautifully decorated evergreen tree, with colored lights ablaze inspires in many warm memories of Christmases long past. The Christmas tree has become one of the most beloved and well know holiday symbols. Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

The tradition of a holiday tree has been around since ancient times and has played an important part in winter celebrations for many centuries. Many pagan festivals used trees when honoring their gods and spirits. In Northern Europe the Vikings considered the evergreen a symbol and reminder that the darkness and cold of winter would end and the green of spring would return. The Druids of ancient England and France decorated oak trees with fruit and candles to honor their gods of harvests. At the festival Saturnalia the Romans decorated trees with trinkets and candles.

  There have also been many legends surrounding the lore of the Christmas tree. In one story Saint Boniface, an English monk, came upon a group of pagans who had gathered around an oak tree and were preparing to sacrifice a child. To stop the sacrifice and save the child, the Saint flattened the oak tree with one blow of his fist. A small fir sprang up in its place, which Saint Boniface told the pagans was the Tree of Life and represented the life of Christ.

Another legend tells of Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant religion, walking through the woods late one night. As it was clear, many stars were shining through the branches of the trees giving the impression of twinkling lights. Luther was so inspired by the beauty of the sight that he cut down a small evergreen and brought it home. He recreated the stars by putting candles on the tree's branches.

 

The use of a Christmas tree indoors appears to have begun in Germany. German Christians would bring trees into their homes to decorate. In some areas evergreen trees were scarce so the families would build a Christmas pyramid, simple wooden structures which they decorated with branches and candles.

The tradition of the Christmas tree eventually spread through out Europe. The English Royalty help popularize the tree in England by decorating the first Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, decorated the first English Christmas Tree with candles, candies, fruits, and gingerbread.

When the German immigrants went to American they also brought along their Christmas trees. In the 1830's most Americans still considered the Christmas tree an oddity. One of the first public displays of a Christmas tree was set up by German Settlers in Pennsylvania. At the time many still considered the tree to be a symbol of pagans and it wasn't until the late 1800's that Americans began accepting the Christmas tree.

Early Christmas trees were often decorated with apples, nuts, cookies, colored popcorn and candles. The invention of electricity in the early 20th century and use of electrical Christmas lights helped spread the use of the Christmas tree.

It is now common in most communities through out the US to feature public displays of Christmas trees. Every year the President of the United States lights the National Christmas Tree in Washington and in New York skaters spin beneath the lighted tree of Rockefeller Center. Through Europe and the rest of the world the Christmas tree has also become readily accepted and adored.

In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it  meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.

 

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.

Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.

In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it  in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims's second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated "that  sacred event." In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionableŚnot only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.

By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.

The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

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