Friday, December 23, 2011

The History of the Christmas Tree

What does the decorated evergreen tree have to do with the birth of Jesus? The answer is ‘very little’. There are cedar trees in Lebanon but this is not even close to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

Centuries before the birth of Jesus the ancient pagans, Druids, Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews celebrated the Winter Solstice, (Dec. 21st), the day of the year that the Sun begins its ascent in the sky, thereby ushering a fertile time of planting and bountiful harvests. The evergreen tree represented eternal life and the promise of replenishment during the cold winter months. Apples and other fruit were hung upon the tree to represent the plentiful food to come. Candles were lit to symbolize the warmth and brightness of the sun. While the Christmas tree is generally associated with Christ, it predates the history of Jesus by many centuries.

Until about 1700, the use of Christmas trees appears to have been confined to the Rhine River District in Germany. From 1700 on, when lights were accepted as part of the decorations, the Christmas tree was well on its way to becoming a tradition. This Christmas tree tradition most likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio.

However, the custom spread slowly. The Puritans banned Christmas in New England. Some Fundamentalist Christian groups oppose Christmas trees and even the celebration of Christmas for their members. This includes the Jehovah's Witnesses. Part of the opposition is because the custom of decorated trees originated in Paganism. They also oppose trees because of a literal interpretation of the quotation from Jeremiah 10:2-4:

"Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathens are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." (KJV).

The Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.

Christmas tree farms sprang up during the depression. Nurserymen couldn't sell their evergreens for landscaping, so they cut them for Christmas trees. Cultivated trees were preferred because they have a more symmetrical shape then wild ones.

Trees and branches can be made purposeful as well as symbolic. The tree is a symbol of a living Christmas spirit and brings into our lives a pleasant aroma of the forest.

Today, the Christmas tree has become accepted by most Christians, by people of other faiths, and for those who do not follow an organized religion. It has become a popular late-December tradition and part of our present-day culture.

I enjoy the Christmas tree and have many fond memories of decorating the tree with my family when I was a child, and when my own children were growing up. But it is important to remember that the tree and the decorations have more to do with enjoying the celebration of the changing seasons and absolutely has nothing to do with the purpose of the Christmas season, which is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, to blend the two occasions an angel or star is often placed at the top of the tree, representing the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.

That seems to be a creative way to make a peaceful solution to this dilemma -

don't you agree?


No comments: