The legend of the Christmas tree

87687297The custom of a Christmas tree, ­undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany, in the first half of the 700s.

The earliest story tells how British monk and missionary, St. Boniface, was preaching a sermon on the Nativity to a tribe of Germanic Druids ­outside the town of Geismar. To convince the town’s people that the oak tree was not sacred and unbreakable, the “Apostle of Germany” chopped one down on the spot. Toppling, it crushed every shrub in its path except for a small fir sapling. This chance event could have been interpreted ­numerous ways, and legend has it that Boniface, attempting to win converts, interpreted the fir’s survival as a miracle, concluding, “Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child.” Subsequent Christmases in Germany were celebrated by planting fir saplings.

The history of the modern Christmas tree goes back to 16th century Germany. In 1561, decorations hung on a tree in the town of Alsace were roses cut from various colors of paper, apples, wafers and sugar. Around Strasbourg there was a widespread practice of bringing trees (evergreens, not necessarily fir trees) into houses for decoration during Christmastide.

The modern custom is also connected with the Paradise tree hung with apples, present in the medieval religious plays. The decorations could symbolize the Christian Hosts. Instead of trees, various wooden pyramidal structures were also used. In the 17th century, the Christmas tree spread through Germany and Scandinavia. Eventually the tree was extensively decorated, first with candles and candies, then with apples and confections, later with any glittering possessions.

The success of the Christmas tree in Protestant countries was enhanced by the legend, which attributed the ­tradition to Martin Luther himself. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. In England the tradition was made popular by the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The German immigrants brought the Christmas tree to America in the 17th century. Public outdoor Christmas trees with electric candles were introduced in Finland in 1906, and in USA (New York) in 1912.

Today, the Christmas tree is a tradition of many families around the world. Decorated in many different themes and colors, they reflect the personalities and styles of the families they belong to. And though it’s fun to decorate the family tree, it’s important to reflect back to why this ­tradition is so important.