Tuesday, December 21, 2010

O Christmas Tree

One of my favorite things to do at Christmas time is to go sit in the dark in front of our Christmas tree, and just enjoy the pretty lights.

And the other day as I was doing this I found myself wondering, wait a second now, where the heck did this tradition come from? And is it even Christian in origin, or is something more recent or secular?

Well, it turns out the tradition has a couple different pieces.  One is the choice of tree.  You never hear about people getting a Christmas maple, do you? Or a Christmas elm.  No, the traditional Christmas tree is an evergreen, like fir or pine. The reason is in its name -- it's ever green. That is, even in the darkest, coldest days of winter (like today, the Winter's Solstice, for example), it lives.  A great little symbol for Christianity, with obvious origins in early pagan traditions, too. (Ain't nobody that's been through a bad winter that doesn't want a little green to remind them that this won't last forever.)

There is also a Christian tradition regarding evergreens involving St. Boniface, patron saint of Germany and born with the really unfortunate name of Wilfrid.  In 722, rather than allow some people to sacrifice a child at the base of the oak tree -- the oak of Thor (!), he had the tree cut down.  When a fir tree grew from its base, Boniface declared the fir a holy tree, a symbol of the everlasting life Christ promises.

Is it me or does Boniface look like a very old George Harrison? 

And yet, probably the idea of a Christmas tree had secular origins -- the earliest practices of having a Christmas tree seem to be in Estonia in the 15th century. They would put up a tree in the public square before Christmas and have big dances there. It was like their sock hop or match.com.

When it comes to the lights, things get fuzzy.  Apparently Martin Luther used to hang lit candles on his Christmas tree -- I know, it sounds like a really, really bad idea.  You have to think his family would smile, nod their heads, and then immediately blow those wicks out as soon as he left the room. "Crazy bugger." (This also explains the original use of the tree snuggy, too. It wasn't to hide the tree stand or catch the little pine needles; it was to catch the hot wax.)

Seriously: Craziest Idea Ever.  

Where did Luther get this idea? History is unclear.  Some say he wanted the lights to reflect the starlit heaven over Bethlehem on the first Christmas.  But if that were the case, why not simply go look at the stars?  Another account I read suggested on a hike near Christmas sometime around 1500, Luther saw a bunch of evergreen trees close together, and the snow on them glimmered.  So he not only brought a tree home, but put lights on it. And the lights represented the light of Christ.

It seems pretty clear that the tradition of having a Christmas tree was pretty much a German thing -- the Rhineland area, actually -- until the 19th century.  And, given that it sort of started with Luther, it was a Protestant custom, not a Catholic one.  Catholics accepted it because they couldn't really stop it.  (And hey, who doesn't like pretty lights, no?)

As for other decorations, they, too, seem to begin mostly in Europe.  Delicate blown glass ornaments began in Germany in the 19th century. Tinsel came later -- and in Europe they tend to use plastic rather than the metal we use.  And children's tree decorations began one Friday when the kindergarten teacher finished her whole day's lesson plan in 2 hours.  True story, probably.

Not every country gets into the Christmas tree.  Mediterranean countries tend to favor the Christmas creche, and in some places think of the tree as an unwelcome distraction.  (Although, speaking of distractions -- did you know in the Catalonia region of Spain the Nativity scene generally includes a red-capped defecating figure (yes, you read that right, I did say defecating) called "el caganer".  I'll leave the translation to your imagination. But if you want a visual...)

No matter what the history, those pretty lights -- oh, how they can quiet you down.  One more invitation into the expectation, the stillness of Christmas.

Rockefeller Center  

(The New York Times did a great piece recently on the choosing of the tree for Rockefeller Center, and how hard it is for people to let their tree go.  I highly recommend it; it's very sweet.)

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