Today we put up our Christmas tree. As we drove home with it strapped to the roof our car yesterday we felt like pariahs since everyone else in New Jersey seems to have collected their tree a week or two before Thanksgiving. I have spent too long among Episcopalians to appreciate such eager chomping at the bit. At Nashotah House Christmas trees were discouraged until about Christmas Eve, since a hearty Advent celebration was considered a sign of true piety. Well, with a small child in those days, we didn’t care to deprive our daughter of the childhood anticipation of Christmas, so we received the ugly stares due to those so uncouth as to set up a tree a week in advance. Now people think we procrastinate to wait until the weekend before Christmas to set up our interior conifer.
A few years back I wrote a book on holidays for teenagers. I haven’t found a publisher yet, but I did quite a bit of research that I’d rather not waste. Sometime soon I will post the Christmas section under Full Essays. It is chock-full of traditions and facts and impressions about Christmas and what it has come to mean to us today in the United States, but since today is tree day for us, I thought I’d start out with a little of the story of the humble Christmas tree:
The modern use of Christmas trees can be traced directly back to Germany in the 1500s. The earliest written reference comes from 1570 when a fir tree was set up in guild houses and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels, and small things for kids. On Christmas Day the kids of the guild members could come and take the hanging gifts. The apples may go back to plays in the Middle Ages with Adam and Eve; sometimes plays of the Garden of Eden had apples hung on a fir tree. A tradition says that Martin Luther, the monk who started the Protestant movement (the Reformation) was walking home one winter night when he saw the stars twinkling through the branches of the pines. He set a tree up in his house, the story goes, lit with candles, to try to recreate the effect.
We do know that the Christmas tree (originally Tannenbaum) was a German invention. Until the 1800s it was almost completely limited to Germany. Candles were used to light the trees – talk about your obvious fire hazard! Royalty from other European countries were presented with Christmas trees as a novelty in the 1800s. Soon other well-to-do families started to set them up. An engraving of Queen Victoria in England with a tree from her German husband Prince Albert captured the public imagination and Christmas trees became the rage in England. Charles Dickens took over and the rest is history.