We All Love Our Christmas Trees . . . But Where Did This Tradition Start?

Dec 10th

Last night I sat on the couch, bundled up in a blanket, sipping Candy Cane tea and I gazed at the Christmas tree.  The lights caught the sparkle of the ornaments and mesmerized me, pulling me into Christmas past, and into dreams of Christmas future.  I thought back through the years to the different trees I’ve had throughout my life and I chuckled at the memories of some, smiled with happiness at others, and admired the tapestry that emerged from all of the interwoven memories from all of the different trees throughout my life.  Growing up my family went out to a tree farm to find our tree, slogging through the mud, wet grass and sometimes slush, to find the one that we wanted.   Dad’s job was always to get the tree into the stand, along with the usual instructions from the rest of us for which way to lean it to make it stand straight.  Then his job was to put the lights on . . . after that he abdicated any responsibility and left the decorating to us.  My brother and I would do some, but usually we’d tucker out before it was done, which always left Mom to finish up.  Mom has a way with decorating though, she has an eye for symmetry that is equal to nobody else I know, and it is inevitable that her trees will look like they belong in a department store.  That’s how beautiful they are. 

After I got married to my first husband tree hunting became less of a joy over the years, and more of a battle ground.  It was inevitable that by the time we got home, one or more of us would be crying and angry.   Those miserable outings always started out optimistically and ended on such a sour note, that it wasn’t a big surprise when my kids were older and I was with my 2nd (and final) husband, that they weren’t enthusiastic about going out to look for a tree.  My husband though, he turned it into magic for us again.  I’ll never forget the 1st tree hunt with him.  My daughter refused to go, making up some excuse or another, but my son – who still lived at home – was pretty much captive audience.  He had a major attitude, and if you’ve ever known a 16 year old, you are perfectly aware of just how major an attitude can really be!  We were heading for the mountains, not a farm.  This was new!  As we got near the forest ranger’s station to get our permit we decided to stop for brunch first at a little diner.  It became an addition to our new annual tradition.  We got our $5.00 permit and headed up the hill, and as we got higher the temperature dropped, we began to see bits of snow here and there. Not enough to have much fun with, but it was there nonetheless.  My son’s frown and scowl began to change as he excitedly watched the numbers on the thermometer drop.  When we finally reached a place to park and got out of the car he looked at us inquisitively. What now?   Well, find a tree.  Any tree?  Yep, any tree you want that will fit on the car.  He couldn’t believe it.  That was one of the breaking points during the old days.  He would be told he could pick any tree, and when he did, he’d be vetoed by his dad, and we’d end up going home with the tree his dad wanted, not the one either of the kids wanted.  As he searched down into ravines, and up the mountainside I could see the tension leave his face and the turning point was a 5 foot wide patch of snow at the bottom of one of the hills, where my 16 years old plopped himself down into the icy stuff and began to play with it.  And there, near that little bit of snow was THE tree that he wanted.  He still didn’t believe he would get to be the one to pick, until my husband headed down to help him, told him to cut the tree down and they would carry it up together. Once the tree was lugged back up the hill (and of course it was WAY down the mountain when they started out), and tied to the top of the car, we stood by the trunk and had a picnic of hot cocoa and turkey salad sandwiches.  The day was a wonderful success and banished the memories of the bad years and replaced them with new, beautiful memories.  We’ve gone back up the mountain several times with one of the other of the kids.  We haven’t been able to coordinate them to be at the same time – between deployments, or one or the other living out of the area that hasn’t worked out – but each trip up the mountain has been a beautiful experience that pushed the past further away and replaced the bad feelings with good ones, and gave us something amazing to hold close to our hearts.  It didn’t work out for the kids to go up this year, but we are hoping that next year we can make it work out so we can share this experience with our new daughter-in-law and grandson.  We will be praying for snow, for family togetherness and for the miracle of new memories to carry with us into the future.  Each year when I gaze at the tree I think of these things and I feel warm in my heart and happy in my soul.  This is a blessing we should all feel as we travel down memory lane – that the good outweighs the negative and the happiness always shines over the sadness.

Why do we put up Christmas trees?  Where does the tradition come from and does it tie in to the birth of Christ?  Well, I looked up several sources and this is what I found out:  The fir tree has long been associated with Christianity, beginning in Germany almost 1,000 years ago with St. Boniface, who converted the German people to Christianity.  It is said that he came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree, and in his anger he cut the oak down.  To his amazement a young fir tree sprung up from the roots of the oak tree, and he took this as a sign of the Christian faith.  That was the very beginning of the Christmas tree, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that fir trees were brought indoors at Christmas time. 

The Christmas tree has even older history than that though!  King Tut never saw a Christmas tree, but he would have understood the tradition that traces back to long before the first Christmas.  The Egyptians, like many other cultures, treasured and worshipped evergreens.  When the winter solstice came they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life triumphing over death. The Romans also celebrated with greens – with a winter solstice festival called Saturnalia – in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture.  They decorated their homes with greens and lights, exchanging gifts.  They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness and lamps to light one’s way through life.  In Great Britain centuries ago there were woods priests called Druids who used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals  They used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life and placed evergreen branches over doors to keep the evil spirits away.  Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes, or just outside their doors, to show that they were hoping for the upcoming spring.  Our modern Christmas tree is an evolution from these early traditions.   According to legend Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas.  In about the year 1500, one crisp Christmas Eve, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was quite taken with the beauty of a small group of evergreens that were dusted with snow and shimmered in the moonlight.  When he got home he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story and the beauty with his children.  He decorated it with candles, which he lit in honor of Christ’s birth.   The Christmas tree tradition likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with the German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio.  The custom spread slowly though.  The Puritans banned Christmas in New England and even as late as 1851 there was a Cleveland minister who just about lost his job because he allowed a tree in his church.  Schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870 and even sometimes expelled students who stayed home that day! In 1851 a Catskill farmer hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City, and sold them all, starting the Christmas tree market.  By 1900, one in five American families had Christmas trees, and 20 years later the custom was nearly universal.

With all of that history though – I’ve barely scratched the surface – what it comes down to is that the Christmas tree is enjoyed as a holiday decoration by people of many cultures and religions.  To Christians it is a promise of renewed life during a barren season, symbolizing Christ’s birth, resurrection and promise of eternal life.

Dewey Decimal System Day – Do libraries even USE this system any more?  I know when I was in school we had to learn it, but I’m not even sure if they do that now.  So for those of you who have never used the Dewey Decimal System, here is what it is . . .It is a library classification system that was first published by Melvil Dewey in 1876.  It has been revised and expanded through 23 editions, with the latest issued in 2011.  I guess that answers my question on if it is still used!  It is a location system using three-digit Arabic numerals for main classifications of books, using decimals to expand it out to give more detail.  This system makes it easy to locate any particular book in a library, and return it to its proper place on the shelves.  The system is used in 200,000 libraries in at least 135 countries.

This Day In History

1869 – a territory of the U.S., allowed women to vote and hold office.     
1964 –  Martin  Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Food Celebration of the Day

National Lager Day – A pint on its own is great, but lager works wonders in food, too. But beware! Depending on fermentation and alcohol levels, beers react differently when cooked.

I hope that I was able to stir up some wonderful memories for you from your own Christmas history, and if that history hasn’t been so awesome, maybe you have been encouraged to make better memories for Christmas future.  Perhaps you can start with THIS Christmas!  It’s never too late to appreciate and enjoy the reason for the season.  Merry Christmas, God bless you and I’ll see you tomorrow!

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