Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree
Where did they come from? Have you ever thought about it? All I can tell you from experience is how they’ve changed since the early 1950s, and I’m sure some of you can relate back further. We know they’re tied to Christmas in some way. Also, there is no record of Mary and Joseph decorating the manger where Jesus was born, or the Wise Men bringing him a tree two years later.
Sorry, but they didn’t get there in time for the manger scene. He was about two years old when they showed up.
So where did it come from? Let’s take a look at history and our best guess.
Most of our ancient ancestors worshiped “the Sun,” and the Winter Solstice, which begins on Dec. 21 and 22, indicated to them that the Sun God— who got sick each fall — lost his power and allowed things to turn bleak was now beginning to get well. They decorated their homes with greenery, knowing it would soon be spring and life would be renewed.
The customs and traditions grew along with the greenery. It is said that as he was walking home one night Martin Luther was amazed at the twinkling stars in the sky. He made a wooden pyramid and decorated it with greenery and candles to indicate the sight in the heavens he had witnessed. Although history doesn’t document this, it’s a good story.
Christian missionaries going into the Germanic regions where pagan rituals were performed during solstice events made no attempt to deny them. They just slowly began to change the meanings to those from Christian doctrine.
What history does document is that Queen Victoria and her German husband were photographed in 1841 with their children standing around a Christmas tree with presents and decorations hanging from its branches. As the picture circulated folks thought, “If it’s good enough for the Crown, it’s okay to have one.”
Christmas trees jumped the pond and were beginning to take hold in the United States by 1890, and as one might expect, they were first received by the Pennsylvania Dutch, primarily German immigrants.
Of course, the New England Puritans preached against them and passed laws that if you did anything on Christmas Day other than hold religious services, you were jail bound, but we know how that ended.
In the United States we were in a depression in the 1890s, although nothing like what was on the horizon. We got our next taste of war fighting with Spain in 1898 in Cuba (even though the one in the 1860s had left a bitter taste in our mouths). Then everything fell apart in 1917. Did it affect Christmas? You know it did.
I’ve written a good bit about World War I (or the Great War, as it was referred to until 1946), but I haven’t mentioned my neighbors next door in my adoptive state of Alabama during this time.
The Alabama National Guard had just spent six months along the border with Mexico, chasing and fighting with “Pancho” Villa’s forces. They got home in April 1917 and were activated into federal service. The 74,000 Alabamians would be “selected” or would volunteer to serve our military in World War I. Of those, 2,500 would die on the fields of combat in France, and another 3,800 would die of disease and other causes. Spanish Flu was wreaking havoc on the troops in Europe and everybody else on the planet. It circled the globe three times.
Under those kinds of conditions, Christmas is hard pressed to be anything else other than another day trying to survive. Alabamians on the home front, just like the Georgians I mentioned earlier, overwhelmed the postal service with packages to their men-in-arms and those serving at camps across the south waiting to disembark. It truly was a Christmas effort of giving everything you had to those living in the muddy trenches of Europe.
The Roaring Twenties followed close behind the war and flu, but it didn’t roar too loud in the south. It was business as usual in the farm and textile villages of the land. In other words, people were grubbing out a living and the country elected an isolationist Republican president, indicating they never wanted to be involved in another foreign war.
My mother told me that for Christmas in the mill village during the late ’20s and Depression years, they decorated their tree the week of Christmas or on Christmas Eve itself. They strung popcorn around a cedar tree along with paper chains they had colored and maybe some kind of ornament they made at school. Any piece of tinfoil saved all year would be hung on the tree with a candle close by to reflect from it. They also used pine cones and red holly or poke berries placed in the branches. Mistletoe would be hung over the door.
My mother and her two sisters and brothers could all sing. At one time or another they were all in gospel quartets or choirs. So Christmas at 313 Park St. in Lindale was a musical holiday.
She said for Christmas they would get a few English walnuts (they gathered black walnuts and chestnuts from the mountains around the villages) and a big, red, store-bought apple plus an orange. The orange was a prize they only got at Christmas time.
The Christmas tree and season has weathered the storm of controversy. To many, it’s just a pagan and secular symbol.
But to the Christian nation, it represents eternal life springing anew that can only be gained through Christ.
We accept the giving of gifts as representative of the three Magi. The lights on our tree are as the twinkling of the heavens Martin Luther described and the multitude of angels that announce the arrival of the Christ child.
As we get older, reflection and the meaning of the season gets to be more important than a festive atmosphere.
I can be transfixed by a fire in a fire place or by a Christmas tree. I thank God for my country, my family, my friends and my health. I hold all of them dear to my heart, and to those family members and friends that are celebrating this Christmas around the throne.
Enjoy your Christmas tree and what it means to you. It’s come a long, long way.
Mike Ragland is a former Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Lucy and the Ghost Train.” Readers may contact him at email@example.com or mikeragland.com.