The Christmas Tree

December 24th, 2010

Godey’s Lady’s Book (one of my favorite magazines, in case you hadn’t noticed) was instrumental in popularizing the Christmas tree in America. They (re)published a British illustration of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree in 1850 — by 1851 the first Christmas trees were being sold in New York City markets. Of course Christmas trees were around before 1850, particularly in the homes of German immigrants. But it took an engraving of the queen and her German-born husband, Prince Albert, around their Christmas tree in Windsor Castle to convince the average American WASP that this charming custom should be universally adopted, whether in the home or in public displays.

The Christmas tree tradition took root (pun intended) quickly. In December 1855, Godey’s published this historical justification of the new custom:

Godey's Christmas Tree, December 1855


THE birthplace of the Christmas-Tree is Egypt, and its origin dates from a period long antecedent to the Christian era. The palm-tree is known to put forth a shoot every month; and a spray of this tree , with twelve shoots on it, was used in Egypt at the time of the winter solstice as a symbol of its year completed. The palm-tree spray of Egypt, on reaching Italy, became a branch of any other tree (the tip of the fir was found most suitable, from its pyramidal or conical shape), and was decorated with burning tapers lit in honor of Saturn, whose saturnalia were celebrated from the 17th. to the 21st of December, the period of the winter solstice; the lighted tapers, the presents given (saturnalitia), and the entertainment of the domestics on a footing of equality, date from this age.

After the saturnalia came the days called the sigillaria, when presents were made of impressions stamped on wax, which still form part of the furniture of a Christmas -Tree . To the sigillaria succeeded one day called the juvenalia, on which everybody, even adults, indulged in childish sports, and hence the romping close of our Christmas festivities.

With the Germans the greatest Christmas festival is our Christmas -eve, the helige abend, which has the more propriety, as, whatever doubt attaches to the date of His birth, it is certain that our Lord was born in the nighttime. The festival itself is called weihnacht, or night dedicated to the commemoration. As Christmas-eve always falls on the evening of Adam and Eve’s day, an orthodox Christmas-Tree will have the figures of our first parents at its foot, and the serpent twining himself round its stem. By a bold stretch of theological fancy, the tree , with its branches and tapers, is, with the above-mentioned accessories, understood to typify the genealogy of our Lord, closing in thc most luminous apex the sun of light and life, “the seed of the woman that should crush the serpent’s head.”

The Romans had already affixed as the summit of their trees a representation of a radiant sun in honor of Phoebus Apollo, to whom the three last days of December were dedicated. In connection with this god, sheep were sometimes exhibited pasturing under the tree , or Apollo himself took charge of the herd, or taught the shepherds the use of the pipe. This was skilfully construed by the Christian clergy to be emblematic of the good shepherd, &c.; the sigillaria of the Romans were impressed with the images of saints and holy persons; the lighted tapers, also borrowed from the saturnalia, were retained here, as elsewhere, as portion of the religious ceremony.

The giving of presents, another portion of the saturnalia, was understood to be expressive of Christian brotherly love; while the apples, nuts, and gingerbread- equally unmistakable remnants of the northern heathen mythology— have been kept in the service of the Christian festival, as accessories that sufficiently recommended themselves without typifying anything particularly holy.

The Christmas tree was no freak of fashion: nearly 160 years later, they’re still going strong. Here’s the tiny tabletop (or in this case, shelf top) tree that we set up this afternoon in our little garret.

Our Christmas Tree

Wishing you a pleasant Christmas Eve.

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