Trees on Fire: A Brief and Somewhat Dour History of the Christmas Tree

I’m not getting a Christmas tree. Not because I’m secular, or because I’m weary of Judeo- Christian holiday rituals, but because I don’t get it. Why do we drag trees into our homes, spend an inequitable amount of time and money hanging tin and glass bits on them, only to drag them out to the sidewalk a few weeks later, collectively contributing to a miserable, brown, dendrologic graveyard? As a kid I never questioned tree trimming because Christmas trees meant cash and shiny stuff was coming my way, and if sacrificing a Douglas Fur was the collateral damage, so shall it be; I was getting my Lite Bright set, dammit. But now, in this foggy San Francisco dawn, I question the practice. Ever-seeking knowledge, and being horribly lazy, I go to Google for answers.

Turns out we’ve been slaughtering trees for centuries. In 15th century Estonia, a group of unmarried merchants known as the Brotherhood of Blackheads would place large trees in the town square, light them on fire and dance around them, a la Burning Man. Later chronicles depict the Christmas tree as being decorated with fruits and goodies for the local kids to eat during the Christmas season. But the tree-burning dance party was exclusive to the Rhineland until the 18th and 19th centuries, when it caught on in other parts of Europe, the UK, and Canada.

America didn’t catch tree fever until just before the Civil War, when an image of the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was pirated by Godey’s Lady Book* in 1850. Like most cultural traditions, and not to be outdone by the motherland, Americans quickly adopted the ritual through its pervasiveness in early print culture. As seen in Wikipedia: “Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, ‘In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850-60 than Godey’s Lady’s Book‘. The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.”

Granted, there are a lot of areas surrounding the holiday season that don’t make much sense upon first glance**, but a little reading usually uncovers their historical symbolism. Despite the backstory of the Christmas tree in the twenty minutes of arduous research I performed for this post, I can’t seem to find the actual significance of the tree. Is it a fertility thing? An emblem of statehood? Or does the Western world simply have an especial affinity for the scent of cut pine? And what about the evolution of these symbols? Why does having a scrawny, half-bare tree echo a sentiment of tree sympathy? Is it the American yearning to root for the underdog? If we really felt for the little guy, wouldn’t we just pardon it and leave in in the ground?

Instead of spending fifty bucks on a tree, lighting it, and decorating it for a month, and throwing it out, I’ve decided to take that money and donate it to a local tree charity. It’s hard to argue with what makes sense, despite running the risk of being a seasonal wet blanket. I can live with it.

* A personal favorite antebellum publication…drool. Must find this issue for my collection.

** stay tuned, I’ll be researching all sorts of Christmas woo ha 🙂


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