A Christmas tree is a decorated tree, usually an evergreen conifer such as spruce, pine or fir, traditionally associated with the celebration of Christmas. An artificial Christmas tree is an object made to resemble such a tree, usually made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
The tree was traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts or dates. In the 18th century, it began to be illuminated by candles, which with electrification could also be replaced by Christmas lights. Today, there are a wide variety of traditional ornaments, such as garland, tinsel, and candy canes. An angel or star may be placed at the top of the tree to represent the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
The custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly the 15th century, in which “devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes”. It acquired popularity beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century. The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree”, especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.
While it is clear that the modern Christmas tree originates in Renaissance and early modern Germany, there are a number of speculative theories as to its ultimate origin. Its 16th-century origins are sometimes associated with Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther who, according to the TV channel History, “first added lighted candles to a tree.”
It is frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak (though the oak tree is obviously not an evergreen) and the popularized story of Saint Boniface and the conversion of the German pagans.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
Alternatively, it is identified with the “tree of paradise” of medieval mystery plays that were given on 24 December, the commemoration and name day of Adam and Eve in various countries. In such plays, a tree decorated with apples (to represent the forbidden fruit) and wafers (to represent the Eucharist and redemption) was used as a setting for the play. Like the Christmas crib, the Paradise tree was later placed in homes. The apples were replaced by round objects such as shiny red balls.
Secular vs. religious nature
Syncretising traditions in Northern Spain, the Bilbao airport displays a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus and Christmas elf alongside the Basque Olentzero, 6 January 2005
The Christmas tree’s origins are uncertain, but it is associated with the celebration of the Christmas holidays, so there has been some amount of debate as to whether it should be considered a secular or a religious custom.
- It has been rejected as a “pagan” tradition that should not be associated with the Christian religious celebration of Christmas.
- It has been rejected as a “Christian” tradition that should not be allowed to be endorsed in secular contexts in countries that have a separation of church and state.
- As a custom arising in Protestant parts of Germany, it has been rejected as a “Protestant” custom in Catholic countries, detracting from the Mediterranean traditions of the Christmas crib.
Pope John Paul II introduced the Christmas tree custom to the Vatican in 1982. Although at first disapproved of by some as out of place at the centre of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican Christmas Tree has become an integral part of the Vatican Christmas celebrations, and in 2005 Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it as part of the normal Christmas decorations in Catholic homes. In 2004, Pope John Paul called the Christmas tree a symbol of Christ. This very ancient custom, he said, exalts the value of life, as in winter what is evergreen becomes a sign of undying life, and it reminds Christians of the “tree of life” of Genesis 2:9, an image of Christ, the supreme gift of God to humanity. In the previous year he said: “Beside the crib, the Christmas tree, with its twinkling lights, reminds us that with the birth of Jesus the tree of life has blossomed anew in the desert of humanity. The crib and the tree: precious symbols, which hand down in time the true meaning of Christmas.” The Catholic Church’s official Book of Blessings has a service for the blessing of the Christmas tree in a home.
In 2006, the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport removed all of its Christmas trees in the middle of the night rather than allow a rabbi to put up a menorah near the largest tree display. Officials feared that one display would open the door for other religious displays, and, in 2007, they opted to display a grove of birches in polyethylene terephthalate snow rather than religious symbols or Christmas trees. In 2005, the city of Boston renamed the spruce tree used to decorate the Boston Common a “Holiday Tree” rather than a “Christmas Tree”. The name change drew a poor response from the public and it was reversed after the city was threatened with several lawsuits.
A Chrismon tree (St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral, Oviedo, Florida)
Chrismon trees are a varition developed in 1957 by a Lutheran laywoman in Virginia, as a specifically religious version appropriate for a church’s Christmas celebrations. They are typically decorated with items made from recycled materials.
Christmas tree. (2013, December 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:49, December 9, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Christmas_tree&oldid=585291673