Ever wonder where our American Christmas traditions originated? There are so many, and a few years ago I began to question our strange holiday rituals. One of the most magical traditions for me is the Christmas tree. Seeing a wide-eyed child gazing at a richly decorated tree got me pondering its origin. Specifically, why do we bring a dying tree into the house (or buy an artificial one,) string lights and hang ornaments on it?
Naturally but curiously, our traditions are borne in history and may take us all the way back to ancient Rome for the first decorated tree. Fast forward to Western Germany in the 16th century— “Paradeisbaum” or paradise trees were brought into homes on Christmas Eve to celebrate the annual Feast of Adam and Eve.
The first American Christmas tree is uncertain, but it is thought they were introduced around 1700 by German immigrants. Although there is no official documentation, the first decorated tree on North American soil may have been during the Revolutionary War, and is believed to have been created by homesick Hessian soldiers (Trenton, New Jersey- 1776). In fact, some theorize that the merriment on Christmas Eve by their confident opponents may have given General Washington and his troupes an edge and actually turned the tide in the fight for independence. Another story places decorated trees with the (German) Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the early 1800’s. Simple baked ornaments adorned the trees and were eaten at the end of the season.
The first official account of a Christmas tree belongs to Charles Follen, a German political refugee and teacher at Harvard. In 1832, at a Christmas party for his young son, he decorated a tree to commemorate memories of similar times in his homeland. The Christmas tree became famous right in our own RVA backyard of Williamsburg, Virginia in 1842. Charles Minnegerode, another German refugee and language teacher at William and Mary, decorated a tree in the home of Judge Nathaniel Tucker. This began a Williamsburg tree lighting custom that has evolved into an elaborate yearly celebration. http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Christmas04/tree.cfm
Our customs have since evolved into something of a unique blend of practices from many countries and is also the product of contemporary life in the fast lane. Now we eagerly decorate to all levels of fancy, cook, party, and enjoy the season in every way imaginable. We also shop till we drop. Why not consider bringing back some of our deeply rooted traditions, recognize advertising and commercialism for what it is, remember what’s important, and make time to create lifelong memories with family and friends!
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