Tuesday, December 1, 2009
The Evolution of the Christmas Tree
In many parts of the world the winter can be a very cold and harsh time of the year. And during this time of darkness, the Christmas Tree, with all of its bright, colorful ornaments and twinkling lights, has become a sign of warmth and gaiety, a popular symbol of the winter holidays. People of many faiths and many countries may have adopted it, but its roots lie back in the Pagan past.
Trees have been perceived as symbols of rebirth and renewal by the ancient cultures, and as such, they were often associated with the many Pagan solar deities whose birthdays were celebrated around the time of the Winter Solstice. Evergreen trees, in particular, were viewed as classic symbols of divinity and immortality because they do not die as other trees do. In ancient Greece, the God Attis, consort of the Mother Goddess, Cybele, was believed to have died and been reborn. His birthday was celebrated on December 25th, and his followers carried decorated Evergreens in a procession in his honor.
The Evergreen tree has also long been associated with the practice gift giving. In Rome, citizens celebrated Saturnalia, a week long December festival honoring the God, Saturnus, by giving gifts attached to Evergreen branches. The festival was so popular that it was eventually adopted pretty much intact by Christianity; the date of December 25th then being celebrated as the birth of the Christ child.
In an old Norse tradition, Evergreen trees were burned in an effort to encourage the return of the sun. This custom of burning a tree was eventually replaced with the trees being decorated with burning candles, a practice still common in many European households today. A direct descendant of this practice, still carried on today, is the burning of the Yule Log.
Because trees have long been a symbol of rebirth, the Christmas tree became the natural symbol for the resurrected Christ with the first known record of a decorated tree honoring the Christian nativity occurring in the 16th century; a German tree was decorated with roses cut out of colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, and sweets. In the United states, there was strong opposition to Christmas trees by our Puritan ancestors who kept them out of the American territories. It was not until 19th century when German settlers popularized the tradition that Christmas trees became popular here in America.