These warm, vivid lines from Walter Scott's poem "Marmion" paint an almost-perfect holiday picture. Add to it a well-decorated Christmas tree and its magical beauty will evoke true Christmas spirit even in the heart of the sternest Scrooge!
The Christmas tree as we know it today has come a long way from its rather obscure beginnings. A combination of different facts, legends and customs, it has evolved to become the most popular and enduring Christmas tradition.
The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of several pagan influences. The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and placed candles in live trees as part of their celebration of Saturnalia. In Scandinavia, apples and candles were hung from evergreen trees during the winter solstice, known as Yule, as a reminder that spring and summer will soon follow.
St. BonifaceLegend says that England's St. Boniface, who traveled to Germany in the seventh century, was furious when he saw pagans revering an oak tree. He hacked the oak tree down but a fir tree sprang up in its place. St. Boniface then attempted to introduce the ideal of Trinity to the pagan tribes using the triangular-shaped, evergreen tree, which in time became a part of the Christmas celebrations. In fact, by the 12th century, it was a common custom in central Europe to hang fir trees upside down from ceilings at Christmas.
Martin LutherMost of the credit for the tradition of the Christmas tree as we know it goes to the 16th century German theologian and Protestant Reformation leader, Martin Luther. It's said that one Christmas eve he was extremely touched by the beautiful sight of snow-dusted evergreen branches shimmering in the moonlight. Wanting to recreate that beauty for his children, he went home, set up a small fir tree and adorned it with candles - a custom we still honor today in modern forms.
Which Tree Wins the Popularity Contest? In the 1870's the most popular Christmas tree was the fragrant Cedar. However, it lost its foliage indoors quickly, and so was replaced briefly by the Hemlock, which was flimsy and would not support many ornaments on its branches. Pines and spruces followed, but by 1900 all these were ousted by the Balsam Fir.
Balsam Fir retained its lead until the depression of the 1930's, when it was overtaken by the Scots Pine. Nowadays it is the tree most commonly cultivated in Christmas tree plantations in eastern North America.
The Scots Pine briefly lost the lead in the 1960's to the Douglas Fir, which is now popular only in the western part of North America. In California, the Monterey Pine is the most popular tree; in the south the White Pine is most prevalent, while New England largely uses Balsam Fir, White Fir or White Spruce.
Let There Be Light!In the past, Christmas trees were often lit with candles or with colorful glass lanterns, but as soon as technology allowed, Christmas trees were lit up and decorated with electric lights. In 1882, Thomas Edison's lab assistant, Edward Johnson, strung a Christmas tree with hand-blown light bulbs.
Other Popular Christmas Traditions - Santa ClausSanta Claus gets his origins from St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, who lived around the fourth century A.D. He was an extremely generous man and always helped the children and the poor, often throwing gifts through children's windows to make them happy. St. Nicholas reportedly died about 350 A.D.
Brought to America in the 1600's by Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam as "Sinter Klaas," Americans began calling him Santa Claus. Over centuries and through the imagination of various authors and illustrators, Santa Claus evolved into the fat, jolly, red-suited man from the North Pole we know today.
Kissing Under the MistletoeKissing under the mistletoe has long been a part of Christmas tradition. It dates back to a 17th century English custom. At that time, the correct etiquette demanded that a man should pluck a berry when he kissed a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry was gone, there would be no more kissing.
Christmas CardPeople across the world send Christmas cards to their family members and friends to express and share Christmas cheer. This holiday practice was started in England in 1843. The first Christmas card was printed in the United States in 1875 by Louis Prang, a Massachusetts printer. By running nationwide contests for the best Christmas designs, Prang helped make Christmas cards part of the holiday festivities.