O Christmas tree

Published 6:02 pm Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Horton Christmas tree has been purchased, erected and decorated. And by some miracle, nothing was broken or ruined when I wrestled the 9-foot evergreen into the house.

We wanted to go bigger, but I thought a 14-foot tree might be overkill. Plus, the trunk on a tree that size is 10 inches in diameter and it probably weighs 300 pounds.

As the tree went up, my son asked where the tradition of bringing dead trees into the house for Christmas began. I gave him some rambling answer about how evergreens represent life and bring some much-needed greenery into the house during the cold winter.

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“But what’s that got to do with Christmas?” he asked. I didn’t have an answer.

According to History.com, trees were part of winter solstice celebrations. In some places, people believed evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts and evil spirits. Evergreens also reminded people that the green of spring would return again.

That doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me though, at least not in the Christian sense. So, why do we have trees today?

Germany is credited with starting the tree tradition that we know today back in the 16th century.

“Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles,” according to History.com.

Early Americans, however, found this tradition odd. German settlers in Pennsylvania erected trees in the 1830s, but they had been a tradition much earlier.

“But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans,” the website wrote.

That makes some sense, considering the early settlers were Puritans for whom Christmas was sacred. They didn’t want it tainted by traditions with pagan origins.

Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” People were even fined for hanging decorations.

Yikes. Those early Puritans would be shocked to see what Christmas has become. The tree is the least controversial aspect of the holiday today.

Going further back, the second-century theologian Tertullian condemned Christians who celebrated winter festivals, or decorated their houses with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor, according to Christianity Today.

Those Puritan feelings toward Christmas trees and decorations slowly changed as more immigrants came to America. They brought their traditions, which often included trees, with them and by the the 1890s tree popularity was on the rise.

The spread of electricity also made it possible to light trees in homes and the tradition has flourished since.

So, back to my son’s original question: What does the tree have to do with Christmas? Nothing really.

If we want to stretch it a bit, we can easily argue that the star that sits atop the tree represents the Star of Bethlehem. Or we could say that the evergreen is symbolic of the eternal life that Christ offers. And that’s good enough for the Hortons.

Luke Horton is publisher of The Daily Leader. Email him at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.