Join the Latvians - celebrate with a Christmas tree (article in "Nevada Appeal")
Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas.
November 25, 2007
Nobody probably cares all that much while decorating their Christmas tree, but today's tree - whether decorated with paper rings and cutouts or lavishly lighted with colored bulbs and twinkling silver ribbons - has a genealogy that goes back for millennia.
Before Christianity existed, the Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshiped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrived, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life's triumph over death.
The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. They decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one's journey through life.
Centuries ago in what is now Great Britain, Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. The Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and placed evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.
Finland has Santa Claus. Russia has traditional handmade Christmas ornaments. Germany has Christmas markets. But arguably the most well-known of Christmas traditions - decorating the Christmas tree - may have its origin in Latvia.
Little is known about the original Riga tree in Latvia other than the fact that it was attended by men wearing black hats, and that after a ceremony, they burned the tree. The first Riga tree in 1510 was decorated with paper flowers and consumed on a bonfire after the ceremony.
In Latvia, as in all of northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun as a part of pagan activities to worship the Sun God where people were living their life as they had for hundreds of years.
As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.
Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means wheel, the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Holly berries were thought to be a food of the gods.
The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again.
Queen Victoria often visited relatives in Germany in the town of Coburg and while there she fell in love with a young Prince Albert. After they got married they returned to England to raise their family.
The tree that Prince Albert provided his family was admired by all in England. This tree was decorated in the finest of hand-blown glass ornaments. Since everyone liked the queen they copied her Christmas customs, including the Christmas tree and ornaments.
A F.W. Woolworth brought the glass ornament tradition to the United States in 1890.
Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. One crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500 before the Riga tree, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lit in honor of Christ's birth.
The Christmas tree tradition most likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio.
But the custom spread slowly. The Puritans banned Christmas in New England. Even as late as 1851, a Cleveland minister nearly lost his job because he allowed a tree in his church. Schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870, and sometimes expelled students who stayed home.
The Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.
Christmas tree farms sprang up during the depression. Nurserymen couldn't sell their evergreens for landscaping, so they cut them for Christmas trees. Cultivated trees were preferred because they have a more symmetrical shape then wild ones.
Six species account for about 90 percent of the nation's Christmas tree trade. Scotch pine ranks first, comprising about 40 percent of the market, followed by Douglas fir which accounts for about 35 percent. The other big sellers are noble fir, white pine, balsam fir and white spruce.
Today you can think of all this when you're selecting a tree for your home in a lot, or out in the woods getting ready to cut a tree yourself. While the former may be easier it's more expensive. Going to the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management will allow you to pick up a permit to cut and maps of where you can find trees.
Just remember, cut the trees no more than six inches above the ground, make sure the diameter of the trunk is less than two inches. And as the Forest folk say, what looks small in the woods will be very big - possibly too big - in your home.