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From pagans to presidents

Layser, Earle FThe World & I; Washington Vol. 15, Iss. 12,  (Dec 2000): 168-173.

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Headnote

The Christmas Tree Tradition

The pungent smell of conifer in the wintry air, snow and twinkling lights, merry carolers and romping children all bring to mind an American Christmas. The Christmas is an inseparable part of this contemporary scene, but broad acceptance of the tradition occured only during the twentieth century in this country. The custom is so deeply rooted within our collective unconscious that when asked about the origins of the Christmas tree, most Americans will simply answer, "It's a tradition."

Where did the custom of decorating evergreen trees with ornaments at Christmas originate? The answer is not simple. Tracing customs back into the murk of time is a difficult and uncertain task, even for something as wondrous as the Christmas tree.

Folk stories provide direction amid the historical ambiguities but still vary widely. According to one, Saint Boniface, The English missionary monk who brought Christianity to Germany around A.D. 700, interrupted a pagan ceremony taking place beneath a mighty oak. Saint Boniface felled the oak with one blow. Pointing to an evergreen, he bade the people to take it into their homes, telling them it was the sign of endless life, the tree of the Christ Child.

Another legend has it that Boniface used the fir tree's triangular shape to symbolize the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His converts revered the fir as God's tree. By the twelfth century it was being hung upside down in homes as a symbol of Christianity.

In The Trees of Christmas, Edna Metcalfe tells the story of a poor German woodsman and his family befriending a child, who was actually the Christ child. The boy touched a fir beside the door of their cottage, turning it into the first Christmas tree.

Miles and John Hadfield, in...