About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How the Christmas tree tradition started

The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of many ancient cultures. 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 celebrated at this time because after the solstice, the days would start to get longer. Evergreen boughs remain green all year and represented a continued existence of life during dark times.

The Romans celebrated with evergreens and lights and exchanged gifts. They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one's journey through life.

Druids in Great Britain used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and placed evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.

In Germany in the 7th century, the triangular shape of the Fir Tree was used by monks to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The converted people began to revere the Fir tree as God's Tree, and hung them upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime as a symbol of Christianity.

Happy Christmas, painted by Johansen Viggo 1891
Later Christmas celebrations involving trees were recorded as the custom of local merchants’ guilds in the Renaissance-era in Northern Germany. Small evergreen trees decorated with paper roses, apples, sweets, dolls, apples, nuts, and pretzels in the guild-houses were set up for the benefit of the guild members' children, who collected the treasures on Christmas Day.

The tradition was then taken up by many aristocrats and traveled to different countries through the marriage of royalty.

Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record tree on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania. 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 wasn’t until 1837, when Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were featured in a magazine article that tree decorating during Christmastime became popular. Both royals had German families that celebrated the holiday by decorating evergreen trees with trinkets, toys, gifts and edibles. After readers saw the engraving in the London Illustrated News, Christmas trees became widely embraced in the English-speaking world.

An America version of the engraving appeared in the influential monthly magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book followed by similar depictions in Harper’s Bazaar and other major American publications. In 1851, the year following the Christmas tree illustration in Godey’s, a woodsman named Mark Carr chopped down a couple dozen evergreens in the Catskill Mountains, transported them by ox sled to Manhattan’s Washington Market and quickly sold out his stock. The Christmas tree lot was born. Five years later, President Franklin Pierce erected the first Christmas tree in the White House.

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