Just as tradition dictates, the Christmas tree lights are switched on every year from December 8th. One of the most heartfelt traditions that bind adults and children in Italy and around the world during Christmas celebrations is surely that of the Christmas tree, the evergreen fir tree that before December 25th is decorated in many houses around the world. But why does the Christmas tree decorate itself? Let’s find out some of the legends that tell the origins of this tradition.
Origins and history of the Christmas tree
It is said that the Christmas fir tree also had an ancestor in the Garden of Eden and that when Eve decided to seize the forbidden flower, its leaves withered until pungent needles and did not bloom until the birth of the Child Jesus. In ancient Egypt, during the celebrations in honor of the Sun God , it was customary to decorate a pyramid. This tradition of decorating the pyramid came to other peoples who decided to use it and adapt it to their culture, using something that came close to the image of a pyramid, therefore a fir tree. Therefore, decorating the Christmas tree with decorative lights would represent, according to the origin of the Egyptian Christmas tree, the light of life similar to those celebrated in the worship of the Sun God. The image of the tree as an expression of the renewal of life is typical of the pagan tradition assimilated, in a second moment, in the Christian culture. Because of the characteristic of being always green, the fir tree recalls the life that is renewed even during the winter, when all the other plants are undressed. For this reason we wanted to bring back the custom of the Christmas tree to the Christian tradition.
Another Nordic story tells instead that in a village, on Christmas Eve, a boy went to the woods in search of an oak tree. At nightfall and no longer finding the way home, the boy decided to take refuge under the only still green plant, a fir tree. The next morning the tree was covered with snow that, with the light of the sun, created sparkling decorations. When the boy’s fellow villagers found him, enchanted by so much wonder, they decided to reproduce the show in their homes. Legends aside, the fir tree was really used in the Middle Ages in the squares of the Germanic countries. It was indeed common the ” game of Adam and Eve “, in which all the squares were filled with evergreen firs and decorations, to recreate the same atmosphere of the earthly paradise.
Another legend whose roots are even more Christian and that of the Christmas balls . When Jesus was born, in Bethlehem, everyone had gone to the cave to pay homage to the great birth. Among these was a very poor street artist who, although not having anything to offer, wanted to give the newborn a gift. So he decided to offer the child Jesus his talent, performing in a particular show with the balls that made the baby laugh. For this reason it is used to decorate a pointed tree, which recalls the hat of the poor juggler and to decorate it with the balls, the same ones that the boy used to make the child laugh. It is said that at this time it is used to decorate the Christmas tree because once, a woodcutter while returning home during a cold night but illuminated by the light of the moon, he found a wonderful pine whose branches were covered with ice. Thanks to the effect of the moon the ice that rested on the branches reflected the light of the moon and the stars. Eager to share the show with his family, he decided to cut a small pine and decorate it with candles and white ribbons, as if they were stars. The idea of the decorated tree not only affected the families of the woodcutter but also the neighbors of the village so that everyone decided to decorate the Christmas trees in their homes. They adorn all the houses during the Christmas holidays from December 8th to January 6th. Christmas trees are colorful and illuminated, the symbol par excellence of Christmas together with the nativity scene. Their birth is due to peoples across the Alps, especially those of the German language, who have always had a special cult for the tree, specifically the Tannenbaum or the fir tree.
The cult of the Christmas tree
The Christmas tree is not just an exclusively Christian invention. The uses of the adorned tree are very old and can be found in many populations and religions above all as a symbol of life. Particularly among the Nordic peoples the custom of decorating trees, specifically the first because they remained always green even in the most rigid periods of the year, was linked to the winter solstice festivities. On this occasion, we celebrated the rebirth of the sun (in fact, the days begin to lengthen, foreseeing the return of spring). So it was custom, for example at the Celts and the Vikings, to bring branches of fir, which is evergreen, inside the houses and decorate them with fruits to wish a prosperous spring. Moreover, another custom, which has come down to us, was that of burning trees as a good-luck ritual to illuminate the winter darkness that then regressed from the winter solstice. Surely from these ceremonials come the bonfires that are made during the Christmas period.
The Christmas tree in Christianity
During the Middle Ages Christianity began to spread, borrowing a great many of its cults from pagan rites.
The Christmas tree symbolizes:
In the Bible, the tree as an emblem is present several times with multiple meanings such as the Tree of Life. An antecedent of the Christmas tree is found in Germany in the “Adam und Eva Spiele” or the real representations that were carried out, during the eve, usually in the churchyard of the churches. At the center of these mysteries is the Tree of the fruit of sin. The latter as an emblem of the fall of humanity in sin becomes the symbol of forgiveness. Initially fruit trees were used and then replaced with fir trees because of their magic of being always green. The opposition of Adam and Eve who yield to sin in front of the tree of the garden of Eden and are forgiven in front of the tree of life thanks to the birth of Christ is the idea of using the Christian Christmas tree. Also decorating the Christmas tree is the celebration of the wood of the Cross through which Jesus redeemed the world from sin. Before the twentieth century, however, Christians considered the Christmas tree to be purely Protestant, but then after the Congress in Vienna it spread more and more into the Catholic world. Thanks to Pope John Paul II, a giant Christmas tree was erected in Rome’s Piazza San Pietro.
Origins of the Christmas tree
The Christmas tree is born in the Nordic countries and there are 4 cities that are contending for its birth:
The first tree seems to have been made in Tallin in 1441, a huge fir tree erected in the town hall square around which young people danced in search of their soul mate. Then there are two chronicles one of the 1570s of Bremen which tells how a tree was decorated; the other of 1605 in Strasbourg explaining that the citizens brought trees inside the houses to be decorated.
In the city of Riga, however, a plaque of 1510 written in eight languages decrees that the first New Year tree has been adorned in the city. After the Vienna Congress, the Christmas tree as we know it today from the Nordic countries was enormously spread throughout Europe and appeared:
In Vienna in 1816 thanks to Princess Henrietta von Nassau-Weilburg; in France in 1840 by the Duchess of Orléans; in Italy the first decorated tree was made by Margherita di Savonia, in the mid-nineteenth century, at the Quirinale; in England thanks to the husband of Queen Victoria: Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Finally, the German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe was the first to insert in his most famous text The Sorrows of the Young Werther a detailed description of the Christmas tree making it rightfully included in great literature. Since the Second World War, the use of adorning the fir tree at Christmas has become purely consumerist and has spread throughout Europe and North America.
The evolution of decorations
The Christmas holidays have gone with time losing their authenticity and the most disparate traditions to give way to an increasingly rampant consumerism. It should be stressed, however, that the Christmas tree instead of getting lost, like many other traditions, has had an ever-increasing development with even greater attention to the preservation of the woods, more and more people are choosing ecological alternatives such as artificial Christmas trees. In fact, the use of real fir trees is increasingly preferred by synthetic fir trees to avoid excessive deforestation, the old lights made with candles have been replaced by more secure and bright LED lights. But the greatest evolution was in the decorations. In fact, if in ancient times we used fruits and wheat, slowly we moved on to colored ribbons, garlands, wooden decorations up to the blown glass decorations. Delicate but very colorful and luminous they have become over time the typical ornament off the Christmas tree and are real little masterpieces that see the major producers still active in Eastern Europe.