Nothing Like A Christmas Tree
Wednesday - December 24, 2008
Merry Christmas, and do you have a Christmas tree? Did it perhaps come in from the Mainland with wasps or slugs, and do you feel at all bad about that and wonder why we don’t all buy locally? Why do we need a sheared Douglas or Noble fir in Hawaii, not home to either?
Good questions, since the tree tradition is so heavily embedded in American culture, even where no traditional trees grow.
There is language evidence that using evergreen boughs (probably holly, hemlock or eucalyptus) for winter solstice ceremonies goes way back in pagan times. We find the German word Weihnachtsbaum used as early as 1835, although some scholars claim Martin Luther started the Christmas tree tradition in the 1500s.
But most interesting for us is that there was no Christian religious connection to the first tree ceremonials. You can read in the Bible that heathens cut down trees and decorated them with metals and dedicated them to various gods of agriculture and good luck. It’s in Jeremiah 10:2-4:
“Thus saith the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.“
Our 1800s Americans thought a Christmas tree was a really odd thing when German settlers started displaying them in Pennsylvania around 1830. The initial community reaction was “take down that pagan thing.”
But near the turn of that century, ornaments made in Germany and England began arriving in this country, and more people felt it was cool to have a tree and hang things on it. We quickly moved to handmade ornaments, but the Germans for many years continued to use apples and nuts and marzipan cookies for their decorations.
With common use of electricity came tree lights and even outdoor displays of trees. The tradition was on. Different countries developed different decorations, but these days you’re likely to find decorated trees in many places that have no substantial Christian tradition. In this country, many Jews, Muslims and Hindus erect Christmas trees because it’s part of the American holiday - even if they do not celebrate Christ’s birth. My unreligious house has never missed having a Christmas tree, complete with angel at the top.
But the real vs. artificial decision finally hit us. There are a couple of reasons. I like a 7-to 8-foot tree, which means a huge fir trunk, and I’m less able these days to haul that kind of weight up our steps. Also, my wife Denby Fawcett of KITV seems to have developed fir hay fever.
artificial trees look so real. But they’re not. Denby wins. We have a real tree. Bought locally this year at Helemano Farms. It’s the best we’ve ever had! Norfolk pine (not a pine but, yes, an evergreen (Araucaria heterophylla) from Norfolk Island in the South Pacific.
Decorations are what make the tree and we’ve spent our 38 married years seeking out exotic, handmade ornaments. We even have hand-sewn Wizard of Oz characters from a friend. Many things from our global travels.
Yes, I hate the task of the lights, our dozens of red bows, and trying to find a branch to hold each ornament. But it’s such a sight when the tree’s finally up and decorated! That’s when I break out the rum and eggnog.
So here’s to Christmas for everyone, and to the Christmas tree tradition (however it started) and the gathering of families and friends.
I suspect that even if there had been no Christ to mark the date, somebody would have had to invent this holiday by whatever name we would have called it.
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