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Belief in Brief: Tracing the Christmas tree tradition

Friday, December 14, 2007 | 1:00 p.m. CST; updated 5:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

For those who celebrate Christmas, the Christmas tree is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus. But how the tradition of decorating evergreen trees began isn’t so clear.

PAGAN ROOTS

Many believe the evergreen tree has its roots as a pagan symbol of fertility. Evergreens symbolized fertility because as other plants shed their leaves during the cold season, the evergreen kept its needles and gave hope to those trying to survive the cold winter.

CHRISTIAN ROOTS

How the evergreen made the transition from pagan symbolism to Christian holiday tradition is hard to pinpoint. One story says that in the seventh century St. Boniface of Germany used the fir tree’s triangular shape to describe the trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — to some newly-baptized Christians. By the 1100s, fir trees started being hung upside down from ceilings during the Christmas holiday. It’s believed that in the 16th century Martin Luther added lit candles to his family’s tree to mimic the stars on a winter night.

IN THE U.S.

The American Christmas tree might have its origins in a mix of English and German tradition.

During the Revolutionary War, German Hessian mercenaries fighting with the English brought their Christmas tree custom to America. The first record of a tree being put on display was in 1830 by German settlers in Pennsylvania.

Another speculation is that Queen Victoria took up the practice after she married Albert, who was German. In 1846, the London Times featured an illustration of Victoria, Prince Albert and their children standing around a Christmas tree. Seeing Victoria’s tree, Americans may have copied the fashion.

By 1890 Christmas trees had become more popular in America. Unlike Germans, who preferred Christmas trees to stand at about 4 feet tall, Americans liked their trees to reach the ceiling. The advent of electricity allowed Christmas trees to stay constantly lit, thus beginning their appearance in town squares.

Since 2001, American households have purchased at least 7 million artificial trees and 20 million real trees every year.

Sources: christmasarchives.com, friendsofthecreche.org, history.com, National Christmas Tree Association


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