Monday, December 24, 2012

O Tannenbaum! Quick History of the Christmas Tree

One of my favorite things this time of year is decorating the family Christmas Tree. I drive my family crazy because I like to have the tree up within a week of Thanksgiving, and like to leave it up at least until a few days after New Years Day.
You see them everywhere. In shopping malls, churches, schools. There are Christmas Tree's on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House. They have become one of the easiest to recognize symbols of the Christmas holiday. So where did the custom come from, since it's obviously not from the biblical story of Christ's birth?

The exact origin of the "modern" Christmas tree is disputed, but generally placed during the late 1400s or early 1500s in parts of Germany, usually around the Renaissance and the Reformation. The tradition of decorating an evergreen tree in winter is believed to actually predate these more modern beginnings, and in fact predate the Christianization of Europe. Pagan European tribes were known to have practices of tree worship, and the decoration of evergreens in the winter was quite common. The evergreen was revered for it's symbolism of eternal life. When the tribes converted to Christianity, this practice made the conversion with them, with the tree's seeming "eternal" qualities becoming linked to eternal life through salvation in Christ.

So that's a bit about the early origin. But how did the Christmas Tree go from small regional tradition to a global phenomenon? Short answer: thank Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. Albert was from Germany, and when he married his wife and moved to Britain, he brought his traditions with him. In particular, he was fond of his childhood memories of the family Christmas Tree (in German, Weihnachtsbaum), and wanted to give his own children the same experiences. So the Christmas Tree became a common sight at the royal palace during the Christmas season, and, not surprisingly, was soon copied by other members of the British aristocracy, and eventually other members 
of the upper and middle classes.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert around their Christmas Tree, 1848
And how did that tradition make it to America, you ask? Well, in part by German immigrants coming to the United States and bringing with them their Christmas traditions. However, it didn't stop there. A popular drawing of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert with their children around the Christmas tree appeared in a London magazine in 1848, and was then copied two years later in an American publication in 1850, however it was altered to remove the crown from Victoria's head, making it seem like a typical American image. These influences helped spread the popularity of the Christmas tree tradition here in the United States.  

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