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The History of the Christmas Tree

History of Decorating With Evergreens a Controversial One


Evergreens in the winter landscape.

Evergreens provide life to the winter landscape.

David Beaulieu

It may come as a surprise to some, but the history of the Christmas tree in winter holiday celebrations has not been one big merry sleigh-ride over a pristine snowfall. It all seems so natural to us now, as it would have to pagans throughout history and pre-history, along with decking the halls with boughs of holly and hanging the kiss-provoking mistletoe. But the story behind such decorations is nothing if not a controversial one.

Get beyond the commercialism of Christmas, and think about the symbolism -- and the psychology. Evergreen trees and the clippings of evergreen shrubs are widely harvested from the Northern landscape and brought inside to promote good cheer and hope. When everything else on the landscape is dead or dormant, mistletoe, holly, laurels, boxwoods, yews and Christmas trees remind us of better times to come -- the return of a green landscape in spring. They also just plain look great as decorations: they infuse greenery into a season dominated outdoors by white, gray and brown. Yes, for most of us, it seems that the history of the Christmas tree should blend rather well with the history of the winter holiday celebrations themselves.

But did you know that Christmas tree decorating and using the clippings of evergreen shrubs as decorations for Christmas has been a controversial practice at times in Western history? For instance, when the Roman Church decided in the fourth century that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25, some of the pagan celebrations of the Roman Saturnalia (celebrated at the same time of year) were carried over, such as feasting and exchanging gifts. But others were too controversial to carry over....

Using the clippings of evergreen shrubs from the landscape to decorate houses, a common practice during the December celebrations of Saturnalia, was strictly forbidden by the Church. The associations between decorating with evergreen shrubs and paganism were just too strong. Already in the early third century Tertullian had warned his fellow Christians against falling into the Saturnalian rut by using laurel wreaths as Christmas decorations (Tertullian, "On Idolatry," XV).

But the controversy over Christmas tree decorating and using clippings of evergreen shrubs as Christmas decorations is not relegated to that remote epoch in history. In the sixteenth century John Calvin objected to observing the Christian calendar -- which includes Christmas and Easter -- because he felt such celebrations promoted irreligious frivolity. It was in this same century that Germany, by contrast, was establishing Christmas tree decorating as we know it today, launching the modern history of the Christmas tree.

But in England the Puritans, influenced by Calvin, forbade the observance of Christmas. And it wasn't until Queen Victoria's reign that Christmas tree decorating "arrived" to stay as a Christmas tradition in England, thanks to the influence of Prince Albert (see The Christian Calendar: A Complete Guide to the Seasons of the Christian Year, Cowie and Gummer, p.11). Not coincidentally, Prince Albert had been born in Germany.

Given its roots in English history, America was predictably late in adopting such signs of frivolity as Christmas tree decorating. The Massachusetts Puritans, in particular, frowned upon such pagan backsliding. But the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century was bound to dilute these anti-Christmas tree decorating sentiments.

But North America has made up for its past deficiencies in the celebration of Christmas and in Christmas tree decorating by introducing two innovations. What are they? The subject of Page 2 is the impact these innovations have had on the history of the Christmas tree...

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