The custom of a Christmas tree, undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany, in the
first half of the 700s.
The earliest story relates how British monk
and missionary St. Boniface (born Winfrid in A.D. 680) was preaching a sermon on the
Nativity to a tribe of Germanic Druids outside the town of Geismar. To convince the
idolaters that the oak tree was not sacred and inviolable, the "Apostle of
Germany" felled one on the spot. Toppling, it crushed every shrub in its path except
for a small fir sapling. A chance event can lend itself to numerous interpretations, and
legend has it that Boniface, attempting to win converts, interpreted the firs
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.
We do know with greater authority that by the sixteenth century, fir trees, indoors and
out, were decorated to commemorate Christmas in Germany. A forest ordinance from
Ammerschweier, Alsace, dated 1561, states that "no burgher shall have for Christmas
more than one bush of more than eight shoes length." The decorations hung on a
tree in that time, the earliest we have evidence of, were "roses cut of many-colored
paper, apples, wafers, gilt, sugar."
It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer,
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.
By the 1700s, the Christbaum, or "Christ tree," was a firmly established
tradition. From Germany the custom spread to other parts of Western Europe. It was
popularized in England only in the nineteenth century, by Prince Albert, Queen
Victorias German consort. Son of the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (a duchy in central
Germany), Albert had grown up decorating Christmas trees, and when he married Victoria, in
1840, he requested that she adopt the German tradition.
The claim of the Pennsylvania Germans to have initiated the Christmas tree custom in
America is undisputed today. And its in the diary of Matthew Zahm of Lancaster,
Pennsylvania, under the date December 20, 1821, that the Christmas tree and its myriad
decorations received their first mention in the New World.
It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted
so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The Pilgrims
second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan
mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell
preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees
and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event."
In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of
December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging
decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the nineteenth century, when the influx
of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy. In 1856, the poet Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow commented: "we are in a transition state about Christmas here in
New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday;
though every year makes it more so." In that year, Christmas was made a legal holiday
in Massachusetts, the last state to uphold Cromwells philosophy.
Interestingly, Godeys Ladys Book, the womens publication of the 1800s
that did so much to nationalize Thanksgiving, also played a role in popularizing festive
Christmas practices. Through its lighthearted and humorous drawings, its
household-decorating hints, its recipes for Christmas confections and meals, and its
instructions for homemade tree ornaments, the magazine convinced thousands of housewives
that the Nativity was not just a fervent holy day but could also be a festive holiday.
Xmas. The familiar abbreviation for Christmas originated in the Greeks. X is the
first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Xristos. By the sixteenth century,
"Xmas" was popular throughout Europe. Whereas early Christians had understood
that the term merely was Greek for "Christs mass," later Christians,
unfamiliar with the Greek reference, mistook the X as a sign of disrespect, an attempt by
heathens to rid Christmas of its central meaning. For several hundred years, Christians
disapproved of the use of the term. Some still do.
From an book called, Panati's
Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati: Harper & Row.