Tis the Season

The tradition of the Christmas tree

The tradition of the Christmas tree

There is something special about a real tree during holiday time. There is the aroma, there is the beauty… and there is tradition. A decorated pine, spruce or fir is an important part of a festive season tradition.  

According to the New York Christmas Tree Grower’s Association, the first use of an evergreen as a Christmas tree in the United States occurred in Massachusetts in 1832.  The next recorded use was in Ohio in 1847, after which the use spread quickly. The National Christmas Tree Association points to Franklin Pierce (1865) as the first President to have a Christmas tree in the White House. The first national Christmas tree was lit in 1923 when Calvin Coolidge was president.

Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce and fir trees, ancient people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows.  It was believed in many countries that evergreens would keep away evil spirits and illness. 

In the 14th century, when hardly anyone knew how to read, churches held “miracle plays” to tell bible stories to the people in the villages. The play about the Garden of Eden was held every December 24, Adam and Eve’s Day. The play showed how Eve was tempted by the serpent, how she picked the apple from the forbidden tree and how the couple was expelled from Paradise. Winter time, when the plays were performed, created problems for the actors and organizers of the play. How do you find an apple tree with green leaves in the middle of winter?  In Germany, someone solved the problem by cutting down an evergreen, and tying apples to it. In addition, the tree was hung with round white wafers to remind the audience that even though Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, the birth of the baby Jesus Christ would bring redemption.

The idea of a Christmas tree hung with apples delighted folks in Germany so much that before long many families began setting up Paradeisbaum or Paradise trees, in their own homes. The custom continued long after the miracle plays were no longer performed.

As years passed, trees were loaded with many more things to eat in addition to apples. Gingerbread cookies were hidden in the tree while marzipan candies, shaped like fruits and vegetables, were hung from the boughs. Brightly decorated eggshells, cut in half and filled with tiny candies, were set in the tree like birds nests.  People called it “the sugar tree.” As the story goes, on the Twelfth Night of Christmas, January 6, when it was believed that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts, the tree was shaken and the children were finally allowed to eat the sweets that fell from the branches.

The wafers that once hung on the Paradise tree were replaced with cookies in the form of bells, angels and stars. With time, because many of the decorations were eaten before the tree was taken down, cookies were replaced with decorations made out of thin, painted metal. When families in colder climates combined the decorations on the Paradeisbaum with the candles on a conifer tree, they created the Christmas tree that is still found in homes today.

In the Northern Hemisphere---the winter solstice---the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22. Many ancient cultures believed that the sun was a god and that winter came each year because the sun god became weak and sick. They celebrated the solstice because at last the sun god would begin to get well.  Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.  

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and who wore the sun as a blazing disc in his crown. At solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.

Across the Mediterranean Sea, the early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon the farms and orchards would again be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. The Saturnalia was a special time of peace and equality when wars could not be declared and when slaves and masters could eat at the same table, and when gifts were exchanged as a symbol of affection and brotherhood.

In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen branches as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the favored plant of their sun god Balder.

When families bring home their Christmas tree from a sales lot or a choose-and-cut farm, they are following a tradition that is more than a thousand years old. “Bringing in the Yule Log” was a ritual that began in Great Britain and spread throughout Europe, eventually reaching North America. On Christmas Eve, the large center trunk of a huge tree was dragged out of the forest. Everyone in the family, both adults and children, pitched in by pulling on the ropes. When the log was brought into the home it was thrown on the fireplace where it burned for the 12 days of Christmas. 

Many superstitions surrounded the Yule log. It had to be ignited the first time a flame was put to it or bad luck would surely follow. It had to be lit with a stick saved from the fire from the previous year, or the house would burn down. To top it off, unless charcoal from the great fire was kept under the family beds for the following year, the house might be struck by lightning. 

As the Yule log spread through Europe, it acquired many customs and many names. In Ireland it was called “bloc na Nodleg” or Christmas block. In Spain, children followed the log as it was dragged through the village, beating it with sticks to drive out the evil spirits. They were rewarded with gifts of nuts and chocolates by people who lived along the way. 

Although hardly anyone burns a Yule log anymore, some memories of it remain.  In French homes, instead of chocolate cake, children enjoy a rich chocolate roll covered with a dark brown frosting that looks like bark.  Sometimes the “buche de Noel," or Christmas log, is decorated with frosted berries and holly needles, or with marzipan mushrooms as a reminder of the great logs that were once dragged from the forest.

This season, when your family brings home their Christmas tree know that you are carrying on a tradition that is more than a thousand years old. 


Susan Hurd is the owner of Hurd’s Family Farm in Modena. Visit them at www.hurdsfamilyfarm.com.