“O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
How lovely are thy branches”
Each year our family travels to our local Christmas tree lot for our most favorite holiday tradition: fighting over which Christmas tree will become our Christmas tree. While scientific, tree-connoisseur terms exist to describe various styles of Christmas trees, our family lacks these technical terms when making our choice. Tall, short, round, stubby, Charlie-Brown-esque. After much excitement and bickering, a decision is made, a tree becomes ours and the tough work of getting it home and decorated commences. With holiday music filling the room, quasi-intact ornaments are taken out of dusty boxes and carefully hung on each sappy branch. The entire debacle takes hours from start to finish—but it doesn’t feel like Christmas without it. It seems that we cannot truly get down to the real business of celebrating Christmas without our beloved tree. Among all of the hustle and bustle, have you ever stopped to wonder why this tree is the centerpiece of Christmastime?
Few know that what we now know as the Christmas tree actually finds its roots in ancient pagan Europe. Well before the advent of Christmas, ancient civilizations treasured the evergreen plant, which stays green year round, as a symbol of eternal life and hope amidst harsh, dark winters. Germans in the 16th and 17th century absorbed this custom into Protestant Christmas celebrations and families began to gather to decorate their tree with apples, nuts, dates and candles.
While Germans spread the Christmas tree throughout Europe and into America, one British woman in the 19th century would forever popularize the Christmas tree and change the holiday season for generations to come. In 1850, Queen Victoria encouraged her German-rooted husband, Prince Albert, to celebrate Christmas according to his childhood traditions. An illustration was published in the London Illustrated News depicting the queen and her family in Windsor Castle gathered around this large evergreen tree decorated with sweets and ornaments. This illustration put the English-speaking world into a frenzy, launching the elite both in Britain and America, to follow suit with the trendsetting queen and compete with one another to have the most elaborate Christmas tree—decorating it with expensive gifts, candies, candles and the like.
Ever since then, the Christmas tree has transformed into the quintessential American holiday symbol. Just one year after Queen Victoria popularized the evergreen, the Christmas tree lot was born in America when a man harvested a couple dozen evergreens from the Catskill Mountains to sell in Manhattan’s Washington Market. Soon after, Thomas Edison had his hand in Americanizing the tree and its decorations with his invention of electric “tree lights” (a safer alternative to live, flaming candles!). Over the years, the Christmas tree has become the holiday’s focal point for Americans who decorate them each year with everything from expensive glass to handmade, keepsake ornaments and gather to open carefully placed presents beneath its branches each Christmas morning.
So, whether your family’s tree is artificial, chosen at a lot or personally axed down in a snowy evergreen forest, it is clear that the Christmas tree not only carries deep historic roots, but also unique traditions and memories that connect each of us to the holiday season and to one another. This year as you sit in front of your tree’s twinkling lights with loved ones, ask each other: What makes your family’s Christmas tree unique and special? What traditions, new and old, surrounding this festive fir do you want to pass on to future generations?
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