Where did they come from? Have you ever thought about it? All I can tell you from experience is how they’ve changed since the early 50s. And I’m sure some of you can relate back further. We know they’re tied to Christmas, in some way. Also there is no record of Mary and Joseph decorating the manger where Jesus was born, or the Wise Men bringing him a tree two years later. Sorry, but they didn’t get there in time for the manger scene. He was about two years old when they showed up.
So where did it come from? Let’s take a look at history, and our best guess.
Most of our ancient ancestors worshiped the sun. And the winter solstice which begins around Dec. 21 or 22 indicated to them that the sun god — who had become sick each fall, lost his power and allowed things to turn bleak — was now beginning to get well. They decorated their homes with greenery, knowing it would soon be spring, and life would be renewed.
The customs and traditions grew along with the greenery. It is said that Martin Luther, while walking home one night, was amazed at the twinkling stars in the sky. He made a wooden pyramid, decorated it with greenery and candles to indicate the sight in the heavens he had witnessed. Although history doesn’t document this, it’s a good story.
Christian Missionaries going into the Germanic regions where Pagan rituals were performed during solstice events, made no attempt to deny them. They just slowly began to change the meaning to Christian doctrine.
What history does document is Queen Victoria and her German husband, photographed in 1841 with their children standing around a Christmas tree with presents and decorations hanging from its branches. As the picture circulated, folks thought, if it’s good enough for the crown, it’s OK to have one.
Christmas trees jumped the pond and were beginning to take hold in the United States by 1890, and as one might expect, they were first received by the Pennsylvania Dutch, primarily German immigrants. Of course the New England Puritans preached against them, and passed laws that if you did anything on Christmas Day other than hold religious services, you were jail bound. But we know how that ended.
In the United States we were in a depression in the 1890s. We got our next taste of war fighting with Spain in 1898 in Cuba (even though the one in the 1860s had left a bitter taste in our mouths). And then everything fell apart in 1917. Did it affect Christmas? You know it did.
I’ve written a good bit about World War I (or the Great War, as it was referred to until 1946). But I haven’t mentioned my neighbors next door in my adoptive state of Alabama during this time.
The Alabama National Guard had just spent six months along the border with Mexico chasing and fighting with “Pancho” Villa’s forces. They got home in April 1917 and were activated into Federal service. Seventy-four thousand Alabamians would be ‘selected’ or would volunteer to serve our military in WWI. Twenty-five hundred would die on the fields of combat in France, and another 3,800 would die of disease and other causes. Spanish Flu was wreaking havoc on the troops in Europe, and everybody else on the planet. It circled the globe three times.
Under those kinds of conditions, Christmas is hard pressed to be anything else other than another day trying to survive. Alabamians on the home front, just like the Georgians I mentioned earlier, overwhelmed the postal service with packages to their men in arms and those serving at camps across the south waiting to disembark. It truly was a Christmas effort of giving everything you had to those living in the muddy trenches of Europe.
The roaring 20s followed close behind the war and flu, and didn’t roar too loud in the south. It was business as usual in the farm and textile villages of the land. In other words, people were grubbing out a living. And the country elected an isolationist Republican president, indicating they never wanted to be involved in another foreign war.
My mother told me that for Christmas in the Mill Village, during the late 20s and Depression years, they decorated their tree the week of Christmas, or on Christmas Eve itself. They strung popcorn around a cedar tree, along with paper chains they had colored, and maybe some kind of ornament they made at school. Any piece of tinfoil, saved all year, would be hung on the tree, with a candle close by to reflect from it. They also used pine cones and red holly or poke berries placed in the branches. Mistletoe would be hung over the door.
My mother and her two sisters and brothers could all sing. At one time or another they were all in gospel quartets or choirs. So Christmas at 313 Park St. in Lindale was a musical holiday.
She said for Christmas they would get a few English walnuts (they gathered black walnuts and chestnuts from the mountains around the villages) and a big red store-bought apple, plus an orange. The orange was a prize they only got at Christmas time.
The Christmas tree and season has weathered the storm of controversy. To many it’s just a pagan and secular symbol. But to the Christian nation, it represents eternal life springing anew that can only be gained through Christ.
We accept the giving of gifts as representative of the three Magi. The lights on our tree as the twinkling of the heavens Martin Luther described, and the multitude of angels that announce the arrival of the Christ child. As we get older, reflection and meaning of what the season means gets to be more important than a festive atmosphere.
I can be transfixed by a fire in a fire place, or by a Christmas tree. I thank God for my country, my family, my friends and my health. I hold all of them dear to my heart, and to those family members and friends that are celebrating this Christmas around the throne.
Enjoy your Christmas tree, and what it means to you. It’s come a long, long way.