Twelve Days Of Christmas, Part 1
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice.
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice.
Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return. Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. The Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and place evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits. In Northern Europe, the ancient Germanic people tied fruit and attached candles to evergreen tree branches, in honor of their god Woden. Trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life. This is the deity after which Wednesday was named. The trees joined holly, mistletoe, the wassail bowl, and the Yule log as symbols of the season. All of which predated Christianity.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death. They used mainly date palms, but all palm trees are considered evergreens.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. Replicas of Bacchus, (a fertility god) were placed on the boughs, and 12 candles in honor of their sun god. The mid-winter festival started on the 17th of December and often lasted until a few days after the Solstice. The Greeks decorated an evergreen tree to worship their god Adonia, who allegedly was brought back to life by the serpent Aessulapius after having been slain. In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.
Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. But, Christians feel that Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. What they don’t say is that Germans called these trees “Paradeisbaum” (Paradise Trees).
St Boniface, who converted the German people to Christianity, was said to have come across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. This oak tree was not just any oak tree, it was Thor’s Oak (also known as Donar’s Oak), a hallowed tree for the locals. This tree stood near the village of Geismar (today part of the town of Fritzlar) in northern Hesse, and was a main point of veneration of the Germanic deity known among the West Germanic Chatti tribes as “Donar”(High German: Donner = thunder) and to northern Germanics as Thor. In 723, and in a fit of rage, St Boniface is said to have cut down the oak tree and to his amazement a young fir tree sprung up from the roots of the oak tree. This marked the beginning of the Christianization process of the non-Frankish tribes of northern Germany. St. Boniface, (was known at the time as the Anglo-Saxon missionary Winfrid) felled the great tree to convey the superiority of his cult over theirs. According to Christian recounts, “a great wind” fell the tree, splitting into four pieces, exposing a new seedling. While this was dismissed as a myth, the symbolism of this is the death of Paganism and the birth of Christianity in the region. Winfrid did, however, use the wood of the oak to build a chapel in Fritzlar.
Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles, if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one crisp winter evening around the year 1500, composing a sermon, he was awed by the beauty of a group of evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. He was struck by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. Christian recounting says he lighted the candles in honor of Christ’s birth.
Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. Some counts say that the tradition started with the Hessian troops during the Revolutionary War. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims’ second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The Puritans banned Christmas in New England. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. Even as late as 1851, Henry Schwan, a Cleveland pastor, nearly lost his job because he allowed a tree in his church. In the mid-1850’s, President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House. Schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870, and sometimes expelled students who stayed home. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.
In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.
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.
By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.
The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition. It was President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) who started the National Christmas Tree Lightning Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.
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.
So here is a little bit of trivia facts for you:
1. As many as 30 million live (real) Christmas trees are sold every year in the United States. In 2004, live Christmas tree sales amounted to more than $506 billion in revenue for America’s 22,000 tree farms. The state leader in Christmas tree production is Oregon, with sales of $143 million.For every live Christmas tree that is harvested, three seedlings are planted in its place.
2. It takes an average of seven years for a Christmas tree to reach six feet tall. Some trees take as long as 15 years to grow to their harvesting height; others reach it in as little as four years.
3. China is the leading manufacturer of artificial Christmas trees. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, more than 80 percent of artificial trees are made in China.
4. In 2005, Americans spent more money on Chinese-made Christmas ornaments ($561 million) than on Christmas trees grown in the United States.
5. Six species account for about 90 percent of the nation’s Christmas tree trade. Scotch pine ranks first, comprising about 40 percent of the market, followed by Douglas fir which accounts for about 35 percent. The other big sellers are noble fir, white pine, balsam fir and white spruce.
The Bible and Christmas Trees:
In the past, there have been many objections to Christmas trees, and the Holy Bible is no exception:
Ø The Prophet Jeremiah condemned as Pagan the ancient Middle Eastern practice of cutting down trees, bringing them into the homes and decorating them. Apparently, in Jeremiah’s time the “heathen” would cut down trees, carve or decorate them in the form of a god or goddess, and lay it with precious metals. Some Christians feel that this Pagan practice was similar enough to our present use of Christmas trees that this passage from Jeremiah can be used to condemn both:
Jeremiah Chapter 10
2: Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
3: 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.
4: They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.:
Some Fundamentalist Christian groups opposed Christmas trees and even the celebration of Christmas for their members. This includes the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, until recently, the Worldwide Church of God. Part of the opposition is because the custom of decorated trees originated in Paganism. They also oppose trees because of literal interpretation of the quotation from Jeremiah.