Like a snowball rolling downhill, important holidays gather customs over the years, some of which stick and become important parts of the festival.
Charles Panati reminds us in his book, “Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things”, that no one has ever known on what day Jesus was born. He says the Christian Church chose December 25, hoping to eclipse the December 25 holy day of its main rival, Mithraism. The date was confirmed for good by Roman Emperor Constantine, when he was baptised – uniting church and emperorship.
Early Christmas trees were not decorated. Most sources agree that the custom of bringing a live tree into the house at Christmas began in Germany, early in the eighth century. Saint Boniface chopped down a tall oak to prove to the Druids that their oak trees were not sacred and protected. As it fell, it killed every bush and tree in its path except for a small fir. The survival of the little tree was quickly declared a miracle by Boniface, who said “Henceforth, the fir is the tree of the Christ child.”
Move up 700 years. By then, Germans were decorating firs indoors and out, with paper ornaments, apples, wafers, gilt and sugar. It’s possible Martin Luther was the first to put lighted candles on the tree. The story says he was walking home one night and was thrilled by the brilliance of the stars sparkling between the forest branches. He tried to imitate that beauty on the Christmas tree.
Over time, many Christians in other European countries picked up the custom of decorating a live tree. New England Puritans didn’t approve of course. Like Britain’s Oliver Cromwell in the 15th century, they thought all religious observances should be solemn.
Cromwell condemned the tree, all Christmas decorations, all Christmas carols and any other manifestation of cheeriness, on the grounds that they desecrated a sacred day. Even the Pilgrims’ second governor, William Bradford, called all such frivolity pagan and did his best to prohibit it. In 1659, Panati explains, Massachusetts made ANY observance of December 25, except a church service, illegal. Those who hung decorations were fined.
It took the Queen of England to make the tree a lasting part of the Christian tradition. In 1840, Queen Victoria adopted the custom when her German consort, Prince Albert, suggested it. Earlier in the 1800s, Germans who immigrated to Pennsylvania brought with them the Christmas Tree tradition. First written mention of the tree came from Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pa., in his journal for December 20th, 1821.
As Germans, Irish, and others came to this country, they brought their holiday traditions with them and these traditions were widely adopted.
Yet as late as 1856, Longfellow said that in New England, the Puritan legacy of the joyless Christmas was still fighting its losing battle with people’s wish to celebrate joyously.
It’s my personal belief that the popular English writer Charles Dickens had much to do with the way we in America did and still do mark Christmas. In addition to his Christmas short stories, he described a delightful Christmas on a farm enjoyed by Mr. Pickwick and his friends, and wrote the enduringly famous Christmas Carol. I think he single-handedly taught English-speaking folks how to think of and honor Christmas Day. He made it a time of loving remembrance of the absent, of cheerful family gatherings, of feasting and games, combining the solemnity of a holy day with the fun of holiday.
Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas”also became a blueprint for Christmas in this country. Dr. Moore wrote it in 1822 to read to his children, but embarrassed by its childishness, he didn’t admit to his authorship until 16 years later.
This is Ruth Page. Today while we share cheerful observances with family and friends, we will also recall with loving sadness the many who are absent.
-Ruth Page is a writer, former editor of a weekly newspaper and a national gardening magazine.