Nov/Dec 2005


O Christmas Tree

As we all know, and indeed as I am almost certain to have reported in some such column at some point in time in the last twenty years, it was Martin Luther who first brought an evergreen into the house, and, decorating it, invented the Christmas Tree. This is an oft told and beloved tale, particularly beloved, one assumes, among Lutherans and Germans. Having both in my background, I would naturally hesitate to cast any aspersions on the story.

However, truth and folkore must out, so I must now confess that the custom of decorating trees for the holidays dates back at least to an English monk now known as Saint Boniface, who around the year 722 introduced the fir as a symbol of Christianity to the then-pagan Germans. It is a matter of public record that at least by the dawn of the 1300's the Germans had a well established tradition of bringing a large evergreen into the village square and decorating it for the season. (In the spirit of charity, one may suppose that Luther inaugurated the concept of bringing a smaller version of the thing indoors, however.)

Anyway, as we also all know, this now-German concept remained unknown to England (and, by extension, America) until the mid 1800's, when Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the Christmas Tree to the royal palace.


By the time of the American Revolution there were, of course, numerous German settlements in the New World — my own ancestors date from this period. It would in any case be odd if the tradition of the Christmas Tree had not followed these settlers to America, especially as the fir tree was so plentiful in this new land. It is at the very least a matter of public record that, at the time of the Revolution, German soldiers brought over by the English officially introduced the tradition in New Jersey.

Now, in less-than-German areas the concept was not so quick to catch on. As late as 1851, a minister in Cleveland attempted to further the charming custom by erecting a Christmas Tree inside his church. The outraged parishioners proceeded to throw both tree and minister out into the snow.

So, a lot of possible "origins" for this wonderful little Yuletide custom, and I've barely scratched the surface. For myself, however, I prefer the following legend, discovered in an old monastery in Sicily:

"And it came to pass that, when the Christ Child was born in a manger, a long procession of humble folk came to give honor to the newborn babe. And this procession was not limited to humankind, for even the animals, yes and the very trees of the forest joined the march toward Bethlehem.

"And among these trees were those who held themselves as perhaps greater than their brethren - the olive tree, the palm tree, the apple and other fruit bearing trees - for they bore in their very branches wonderful gifts to bring the Child. And at the back of this procession, very humble and not so great at all, there stood a little fir tree. All it had in its branches were thorny needles - hardly appropriate offerings. The poor fir longed to see the infant, but was pushed to the back by its self-acknowledged superiors, who did not want to embarrass the assemblage with the sight of their inferior needled cousin. And so the little fir tree remained at the back, humblest perhaps of all the humble creatures now gathered.

"And it happened that an angel was hovering nearby, and took pity on the poor fir tree, and persuaded a few stars to leave their berths in the heavens and for a time come and sit amongst the fir's boughs. The Christ Child looked up, and saw this now magnificently star-adorned tree, and smiled His first smile..."