Skip to main content

The First Christmas Trees

Many holiday traditions that are not explicitly religious often wind up attributed to pagans.  Easter eggs, Easter rabbits, mistletoe, jack o’lanterns… all these modern symbols of religious holidays that have pagan roots.  The Christmas tree also gets this association, but that isn’t entirely true.

There are pagan forerunners to the Christmas tree.  A pagan tradition from pre-Christian Poland involved suspending evergreen branches from a house’s ceiling and decorating them with fruit, nuts, wafers, cookies, and other decorations.  This was thought to suggest and inspire good luck and prosperity. While this does sound a bit like our modern concept of the Christmas tree, this tradition is not thought to be the inspiration of the iconic holiday decoration that we think of today.  Evergreen has long figured into the season, though. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia (a festival that occurred during modern Christmastime) with wreaths of evergreen branches, which is a common Christmas decorations throughout Europe and America today.

The traditional Polish podłaźniczka, a pagan tradition that remains part of Polish Christmas decorations today.

What brought trees in from out of the cold was theater.  Specifically it was the traditional medieval mystery play performed every year in much of the Christian world on December 24.  This play told the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of Paradise. This popular decoration was a prop for the play, and over time it became popular to have a Tree of Paradise of your own inside your house.  The Tree of Paradise is said in the Bible to have borne some kind of fruit. On these small, decorative trees, round objects were popular substitutions (since real fruit was for eating), and shiny, red objects were preferred.

Stage design for a modern production of the medieval Adam and Eve mystery play at The Cloisters in New York City.  These performances were held inside the church. Not all productions were this big.

In the mid-15th century, an association of unmarried merchants in the Baltic countries called the Brotherhood of the Blackheads started a tradition of decorating a tree with fruit, candy, and baked goods, and delivering it to town squares for their apprentices and the local children to enjoy.  Latvians are keen to call this the first Christmas tree, but not everyone agrees with this. Residents of Turckheim, Alsace, claim that the first Christmas tree was erected there, since a private home in Turckheim features the earliest known design of a Christmas tree, appearing on a keystone, dating from 1576.

Christmas 2018, Turckheim, Alsace, France.  Christmas trees are still a big deal in this town where the locals will tell you they were invented!

Today Alsace is in France, but when the Turckheim tree was created, Alsace was still part of the Holy Roman Empire, a mostly German-speaking country.  The Christmas tree grew in popularity there, and the concept was exported throughout Europe and around the world. In fact, the Christmas tree was first introduced to North America by Hessian soldiers stationed in Quebec in 1781, while the Christmas tree was first introduced to Great Britain by Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz in 1800.  The tree became a tradition among the British royal family, who were of German stock, but never really caught on with the people until Queen Victoria had one at her wedding to Prince Albert (also German) in 1841. Enthusiasm for the new queen no doubt fueled the appeal of the Christmas tree, which is a staple of British Christmas decorations today.

While the Christmas tree is directly descended from the medieval Adam and Eve mystery plays, it also merges the pagan tradition of the evergreen tree.  As holiday symbols go, the Christmas tree is probably more Judeo-Christian in origin than most, but it definitely has a pagan tinge to it. Like a lot of traditions, you can’t really assign them to one particular background.  If you dig deep enough, you seldom discover “pure” roots for anything!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Betty Crocker: A Brief Biography

Long have our supermarket shelves borne products with the name Betty Crocker.  This name has long since lodged in our heads an essential part of americana.  It seems to evoke the past.  It seems to always have evoked the past, a past when life was simpler and Mother and Grandmother cooked at home, using time tested recipes and only the purest ingredients.  We can’t go back to that simpler, wholesome past, but we can give ourselves a Proustian shot of nostalgia by tasting the past we remember, or the past we only wish we could remember, but know must be so good.  That is the Betty Crocker brand.  You might have seen drawings of her, but have you ever actually seen the legend herself?  Here’s an image of Miss Crocker from a 1953 television ad:


The full "Betty Crocker" TV commercial.

Okay, that’s actually actress Adelaide Hawley, who played Betty Crocker in a number of commercials for the brand from 1949 to 1964.  Betty Crocker was born in 1921, so this representation looks to be…

The Star-Spangled Banner: The Original Lyrics

If you’re an American (and quite possibly even if you’re not), you’ve certainly heard the tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” numerous times.  It’s a stirring melody, and can often sound very proud, and if someone asked you to hum a few bars, you probably could do a creditable job of it, even if you have no musical ability at all.  The tune is that familiar.  Of course, it has another name that you probably know better: “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

But the song’s first name was “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The song asserts that Anacreon is in heaven, right from the first line.  Whether Anacreon actually is in heaven, I’ll take no position on, but he most certainly is dead.  Anacreon was a Greek poet who lived from circa 582 BCE to 485 BCE, which is a remarkably advanced age for the times.  Anacreon was celebrated for his songs about drinking and love and having a good time.  Maybe not the weightiest of literature, but even the most serious poets and thinkers need to take a break now and …

At, Hashtag, And Per Se

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, there has been little change to the keyboard used in English.  The position of the letters has remained the same, and the numbers and punctuation have as well. The advent of the personal computer has required additional keys, most of which have found their own standard spots on the keyboard, but for the most part, there haven’t been many changes to the original design.

If you look at the above keyboard, you can see there have been some changes. Keys for fractions don’t really exist anymore; nor does a key to write the ¢ symbol. But the ¢ key on this 1900 model typewriter also includes the @ symbol, which has been common on keyboards since the dawn of typewriters. It’s older than that, even. But of course it is: how else would anyone write an email address? Except… who are you going to email in 1900? No one was emailing anyone before 1972. That’s when programmer Ray Tomlinson invented email. He figured that if you’re going to …