Holiday Trees by Thia
People the world over mark the winter holidays with an evergreen tree. Whether you call it a Christmas Tree or a Yule Tree or something else, it has become a tradition throughout much of the world. But where did this tradition come from?
Long before the common era, 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 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 first recorded instances of having evergreen trees during the Solstice is from the mid-winter Roman holidays called Saturnalia. Pagans back then did not cut down whole evergreen trees as that would be too destructive. Instead they would decorate their houses with clippings from evergreens or decorate outdoor trees with bits of shiny metal and replicas of Bacchus (a fertility God). Saturnalia started on December 17 and went through the Solstice.
Populations without evergreens still celebrated with trees. The ancient Egyptians used the palm trees at the solstice, when Ra (Egyptian Sun God) began to recover from the illness. They filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized the triumph of life over death.
The Germanic people tied fruit and attached candles to evergreen trees to honor Woden. Trees symbolized eternal life. Some built 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. In 17th Century Germany the trees were called Paradise Trees. They were used to celebrate the Feast of Adam and Eve on December 24th.
It was the Germans who first brought the tradition to the States in the 17th Century. However, this tradition was not initially embraced. Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated the “sacred event.” 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 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 fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society.
By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. 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 as well as in homes.
Tinsel and The Legend of the Christmas Spider
Tinsel was also created in Germany, were it was originally made from thin strips of beaten silver. The story of how tinsel came to be associated with holiday trees seem to have started in Eastern Germany or Ukraine. However, they are also told in parts of Finland and Scandinavia.
All the versions of the story involve a poor family who can't afford to decorate a Tree for Christmas (in some versions the tree grew from a pine cone in their house, in others the family have bought a tree into the house). When the children go to sleep on Christmas Eve a spider covers the tree in cobwebs. Then on Christmas morning the cobwebs are magically turned into silver and gold strands which decorate the tree!
Some versions of the story say that it's the light of the sun which changed the cobwebs into silver and gold but other versions say it's St Nicholas / Santa Claus / Father Christmas / das Christkind which made the magic happen.
In parts of Germany, Poland, and Ukraine it's meant to be good luck to find a spider or a spider's web on your Christmas Tree. Spider's web Christmas Tree decorations are also popular in Ukraine. They're called 'pavuchky' (which means 'little spider') and the decorations are normally made of paper and silver wire. You might even put an artificial spider's web on your tree!
Traditions in Various Countries
Traditions for Yule and Christmas trees vary by country. Here is a sampling of current traditions.
Trees are bought anytime in December and decorated with colored lights, tinsel, and baubles. Some people favor the angel on top of the tree, others the star. The house is decorated with garlands, candles, holly, and ivy. Wreaths and mistletoe are hung on the door.
Most people buy trees well before Yule or Christmas Eve. However they usually don’t take the tree inside and decorate it until just a few days before. Evergreen trees are decorated with stars, sunbursts, and snowflakes made from straw. Other decorations include colorful wooden animals and straw centerpieces.
Nowadays Norwegians often take a trip to the woods to select a tree. The holiday tree was not introduced into Norway from Germany until the latter half of the 19th century; to the country districts it came even later. When Christmas Eve arrives, there is the decorating of the tree, usually done by the parents behind the closed doors of the living room, while the children wait with excitement outside. A Norwegian ritual known as “circling the Christmas tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and then walk around it singing carols. Afterwards, gifts are distributed.
Celebrated on December 25th by Catholics and on January 7th by Orthodox Christians, Christmas is the most popular holiday in the Ukraine. During the Christmas season, which also includes New Year’s Day, people decorate fir trees and have parties.
A popular custom is Catalonia, a lucky strike game. A tree trunk is filled with goodies and children hit at the trunk trying to knock out the hazel nuts, almonds, toffee, and other treats.
Interesting Holiday Tree Facts
• The tallest living holiday tree is believed to be the 122-foot, 91-year-old Douglas fir in the town of Woodinville, Washington.
• Holiday trees generally take 6-8 years to mature.
• 100,000 people are employed in the holiday tree industry.
• 98% of all holiday trees are grown on farms.
• More than 1,000,000 acres of land have been planted with holiday trees.
• 77 million holiday trees are planted each year.
• On average, over 2,000 trees are planted per acre.