December Gardening 2019: History of the Christmas Tree

Luther Amidst His Family at Wittenberg on Christmas Eve, 1536 from Wheat Sheaf

From Mélie’s Garden

The use of evergreen trees as part of Christmas did not just start in Victorian times, with Prince Albert establishing the German tradition in England, as most of us have been taught.

Ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with green palm fronds to celebrate the return of the hawk-headed god Ra who wore the sun as a blazing crown and was worshiped during the winter solstice (December 21)

Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples during another winter festival, Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the God of agriculture, also celebrating the return of slightly longer days and the beginning of another agricultural year.

These traditions moved northward into Europe with Medieval Germans using evergreen trees decorated with apples to celebrate the same season.

Northern European pagans thought of the sun as a God. So they also put up evergreen boughs around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to remind them of the greenery that would grow again when the sun regained its strength in the spring.

Early Christians were taught to “leave the plants and trees to the heathens.”

Christmas trees were incorporated into the German Christmas because of German Theologian Martin Luther. Legend says that Martin Luther while walking through a forest at night, was overcome by the beautiful December sky full of twinkling stars and raced home to recreate this holy scene for his family. He dragged an evergreen into his house and decorated it with candles “in celebration of Jesus departing Heaven for Earth at Christmas.”

German settlers brought to America the tradition of Christmas trees; as were trees to England, when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, set up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. Christmas trees were then given the Royal Seal of Approval and they then became fashionable decorations in English houses.

American households quickly followed the tradition. Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnston, is said to be the first American to put electric lights on his tree in 1882. In December of 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree at the White House.

In the Spofford household, our tree is cut up after Christmas and the branches are used as mulch on our flowerbeds celebrating the winter solstice and the hope of another successful gardening year in the coming spring.

Partly Reprinted from THE WEEK Dec. 2017

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