When Christmas is around the corner, most of the cities all over the globe shines with thousands of lights, and bright Christmas trees cheer up the brief and cold nights of December. According to the American writer Washington Irving, Winter would have been a far too grim period with no festivities in honour of Jesus. Decorating the tree is a spread custom in every city and family, even when almost no one try to think where this peculiar habit comes from.
New York – 1955
It is common belief that the Christmas tree is tradition that sets its origin in Pagan Northern Europe. In reality the decoration of the trees in times of religious celebrations was already common back in ancient Greece and in the Eastern Roman Empire. It certainly was not a fir tree: it was used a branch of olive or bay tree called Eiresione (Ειρεσιώνη) adorned with red or white woollen wreaths as well as invernal fruits such as chestnuts and walnuts, apples and pears.
It was set up twice a year: in Spring asking for a favourable weather in terms of harvest and in Autumn as thanks for the gifts that the earth had provided them with throughout the year. Their branches were adorned in this fashion for Apollo and Athena, brought inside the houses by singing children who would get gifts in return for their wishful songs.
From the Eiresione to the Christmas Tree
This tradition carried on even in the Christian Byzantium as thanks to God for his own gifts. The tradition might have arrived from North-West Europe, where plants common in the territory were decorated; that’s the case of the evergreens, thanks to the guards of the Palace of Byzantium, as in the Battalion of the Imperial Cavalry.
The guards, who would take part to the official ceremonies (as well as the ones related to Christmas) were coming from far away cultures such as Scandinavia, Great Britain, Russia or Germany: because of that they were professing non – Christian faiths like Pagan and Muslim ones. It is likely than some of them brought in from their own culture the tradition of the tree decoration during the Yuletide season, not necessarily from West but most probably from East.
New York – 1912 – The 1st public tree in the city
It is more common the idea that the habit was originated by the Celts, who would decorate the evergreen tree to celebrate the winter solstice right on the 25th of December. From that day on the Sun would reborn, letting the days become increasingly longer.
During the Middle Ages, in Northern Europe, the day before the festivity, on the parvis of the churches, the devotees would stage the Mystery of Adam and Eve: a tree, later on becoming a fir tree for his magical value as an evergreen, represented the original sin tree, symbol of the fall of mankind. By celebrating the birth of Jesus, saviour of humanity represented here by Adam and Eve, the tree becomes symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. Initially adorned only by apples then later enriched with coloured paper and glass balls which added up on the light.
This tradition has been for a long time only happening in Northern Europe as the Catholic states would consider it as a Protestant, if not Pagan, custom. In Italy the first person to decorate a tree was Queen Margherita in the second half of 1800. In Great Britain the tradition was inserted in 1850 by Albert of Saxe – Coburg, husband of Queen Victoria, who was born and raised according to the Northern European education. From England the Christmas tree fashion was then spread in the rest of the other Anglo saxon countries as well as the States.
Rockefeller Center tree
Above: pic shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Today the Christmas tree erected every year in Rockefeller Center of New York is the worldwide symbol of Christmas, the most visited attraction in the US during December. Yet it has not always been this way.
In 1931, in a nation were the Great Depression had struck pretty fiercely, the workers handling the construction of the Rockefeller Center made a collection to buy a tree who then adorned with paper-made wreaths created by their own relatives, with no illumination at all. Under that tree then, they went collecting their wage.
New York – 1931
Almost 2 years later, in 1933, the Rockefeller Center tree had already become a tradition.