The Tradition of the Christmas Tree

Fist off let me just say this; corporate appropriation of holidays is bullshit. It puts pressure on people to buy and do things that distract from the purpose of holidays. That’s why the tree is so bad-ass. Because it can be really cheap and it is enjoyed by everyone. You get to partake in the ritual of decorating it, and once it is decorated it becomes the worlds most charming night light. I leave mine on when my room mates are out carousing, so when they get home they are greeted by the tree. Plus its less bright than the living room light. Needless to say, I think the tree is boss. So when people say how eager they are to pitch it I’m always a little taken aback.

Just the other day I was walking down the street and this lady calls out to me. “Happy New Year!” and she smiles and says “I’m going to be saying that until July.” So then I asked if she still has her Christmas tree up and she replied “Oh, hell no!” as if the evergreen had offended her holiday sensibilities.

My room mate had the same response. As soon as the house had been restored to order after Christmas he was talking about getting rid of our tree. So I started to wonder if the tree has always had the same short shelf life that it is granted today.

After looking through some Q&A forums I found that a lot of catholics will keep the tree up through the Epiphany, the time between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the wise men. This means the tree is dumped after the 6th of January. And generally people will take down the tree between two days after Christmas and the day after new years.

I needed to look at how this all came about. I did some reading and it turns out the Christmas tree has some pretty old roots (get it?). For thousands of years trees have been used to adorn homes and buildings to celebrate the winter solstice. Though this was more a celebration of the return of the sun than a celebration of winter, since the solstice marks when the days will increase in length again. We normally don’t think of the Christmas tree as an ancient Egyptian tradition but I read that Egyptians would adorn their structures with palm fronds and other evergreen plants to mark the return of Ra, the sun god. As for the Spruce and Pine that we think of today, those got started in northern Europe.

Norse and Germanic tribes had been celebrating the solstice with evergreens before the birth of Christ, and their reverence for trees was a deep part of their pagan culture. Legend has it some guy named Saint Boniface went to convert the heathen Germanic tribes and chopped down their sacred oak tree. Afterwards he was like “Here, take this dinky pine tree. Its triangular, like the holy trinity, and always points to heaven, so you know where to send your thanks for removing this unsightly oak. Now grovel.” Or something like that. So then the Germanic tribes, being overwhelmed with the pragmatism and cultural sensitivity of Boniface, thanked him for the idea and proceeded to use the Christmas tree in their homes every year since that day. the end. Personally, I would have beat his ass, but that’s just me.

But the truth is the Christmas tree was still a shady character. Catholic guidelines now dictate the length of a trees shelf life, but the protestants gave it its modern look. Another (really, probably, very, true and not improbable at all) legend has it that Martin Luther, catholic superman’s arch nemesis, lit candles and affixed them to the tree in his home. He thought it was a poetic way to show his family the beauty of the nights sky, and how moved he was by it while composing the sermon he was brewing on his walk home. So decorating the tree with candles became a trend and then when electric lights became possible they were a no-brainer for the, no doubt, extremely flammable Christmas tree of Luther’s time.

Some two hundred years after Luther and a hundred years after when the first European refugees were landing on North American soil the Christmas tree was still viewed as a pagan symbol by Americans and until the 1840’s the evergreens were not looked upon with favor, according to The History Channel. That’s when it all changed. A fancy lady named Queen Elizabeth decided that she was going to send a Christmas card to all her subjects (or something) and had her families portrait drawn with the adorned tree in the background. Once Americans saw that fancy people liked the tree too they too started jumping on board. Now the Christmas tree an American tradition, and if you other nations want to claim that then you can come try and take it over my cold dead body.

But listen to this. I think we are looking at the holidays the wrong way. After Christmas we still have to slog through the actually brutal months. February lurks around the corner and, like august, it has a dearth of holidays just when we need them most. Presidents day is cool but it’s a not a feast. And I mean, seriously, Valentines day? What a crock…Instead of front-loading all our holidays into fall and December, we should be pushing them back until the strain of winter has embedded itself in our minds like the permafrost under our feet. I say we get the tree on, say, the 22nd of December and decorate it right before Christmas, then keep watering that baby until April fools day. With modern genetics I’m sure we could get trees that can go in for the long haul without dropping a single needle. Plus low budget holiday joy for the whole family for months. Happy holidays.


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