The Christmas Tree

picture credit © Robert Elfferich

A bell is ringing. It is announcing the arrival of the Christ Child—for in Austria, it is the “Christkind” who delivers presents on Christmas Eve. As soon as the door to the living room opens, everyone’s eyes are blinded by a single source of light in the middle of the darkened room: the Christmas tree. Overloaded with chocolate, ornaments, tinsel and candles, the glittering tree somehow always succeeds in charming even the most skeptical heart. You don’t have to be religious to be dazzled by the tree in this magic moment when it stands on its stage, shining and full of glory. It is almost as if it turns into something sacred on its own.
Now, not everyone has a tree for Christmas. In many countries, people light plastic trees because real pine trees are too rare, expensive or simply don’t exist. The record for the most evergreen pine trees chopped down around Christmas time is held by the US. Christmas trees have also become popular in non-Christian countries, like India, where Mango or Banana trees are sometimes decorated. In other parts of the world, people adorn branches or decorate their houses with lights instead.
How did this custom of the Christmas tree start anyhow? The 24th of December was originally the name day to commemorate Adam and Eve. While nobody is really sure where this tradition came from, it is possible that decorating a tree was a reference to the tree in Paradise. This theory is supported by early reports of mysterious European plays from the middle ages, where a tree decorated with apples was used as a prop. The plays mainly told Bible stories for people who were illiterate.
The tradition of Christmas trees in market squares was first documented in Northern Europe in the late 16th century, such as “The First New Years Tree in Riga”, or a tree decorated with “apples, nuts and pretzels” in Bremen, Germany. The first indoor Christmas trees were decorated with gingerbread and golden apples. Later, glass ornaments were used which were similar to some of the decorations that can be seen today. In Britain, Christmas trees became popular in the mid 19th century, partly due to a drawing first published in the Illustrated London News called “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle”. In Victorian times, people started to decorate their trees with candles, which were supposed to represent stars. While this custom is still popular in Austria, in many countries the candles were replaced by electric Christmas lights at the turn of the 20th century because of the fire hazard.
Apart from the various traditions in terms of natural versus artificial trees, as well as the decorations, there are also different customs as to when to set up and take down the Christmas tree. While in South Australia, people put up their tree as early as late November, in Germany the tree usually isn’t adorned until Christmas Eve. In the same way in some cultures the tree is taken down immediately after the holidays, while other cultures leave it up until February.
Have you bought and decorated your Christmas tree yet?

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