Tree Talk: The Christmas tree

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The Christmas tree offers an undeniable contribution to our celebration of the Christmas holiday.

The familiar symbolism of a Nativity scene is accompanied by colorfully adorned evergreen trees to create an unmistakable feeling for us that says, “This is Christmas.” We go to great trouble to bring trees directly, albeit temporarily, into the forefront of our lives, and we scarcely know why. We move furniture, set the tree in its stand, decorate it with lights and ornaments and we place our gifts to friends and family underneath with care.

As a tree lover, I am curious and elated at this joyful celebration that involves trees. I ask then: “What are the roots of this tradition that causes us to bring living trees (or their proxies) from the forest into our homes, dress them in lights and splendorous finery, all to celebrate this holiday?”

Ancient Europeans, Romans, Egyptians and other cultures shared the habit of decorating their homes with living plant material to bring a hint of hopeful regeneration during the short days of the winter solstice. Northern European druids, the precursors to the Celts, believed that evergreen boughs represented everlasting life. Several traditions concurrently trusted that their respective sun gods were ill at this time and the greenery signaled the return to health.

It was a reminder that spring would eventually come. These pagan traditions gradually were absorbed by Christianity as the newer religion spread its influence throughout Europe. German people began bringing trees into their homes in the 1500s, decorating them with apples to create paradise trees. Eventually, nuts, treats and other sweets were added as the Christmas traditions gained depth and momentum. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant branch of Christianity, was attributed with cutting a fir tree and bringing it home to decorate it with candles to share a compelling vision of a starlit night with his German family. These traditions spread to other parts of Europe and to the Americas, but the Christmas tree was still largely viewed as foreign custom – and, in some cases, un-Christian – until the mid-1800s.

As German and Irish immigrants became more prominent members of the communities and Protestant Christianity expanded in influence, this all changed. The influential Queen Victoria of England and her German husband, Prince Albert, decorated a Christmas tree in 1848 at Windsor Castle, which became an instant hit after images were printed in the Illustrated London News. The ceremony spread throughout Europe and to America in acts of emulation of the popular royal couple. Ornaments became more elaborate and commercially available and, along with safer electric lights, entered the modern era. Although now considered a Christian tradition, the Christmas tree is grown from a wealth of sources. Christmas trees symbolize a general feeling of universal love and compassion that also extends the sharing to those less fortunate. If the lives of these trees have the capacity to raise all of these wonderful sentiments and add so much to people’s lives, I am all for it.

Besides cutting a tree from the forest, other options include constructing artificial tree trunks and decorating them with living branches or using plastic and synthetic trees that will be reused every year. Or, better yet, conduct worship and Christmas blessings around a potted tree that can then be transplanted into your yard when the ground thaws in the spring. Through a lifetime of Christmas celebrations, you will have have planted a small forest, imbued with love and memories.

Whatever your inclinations, the Taos Tree Board wishes you and yours a merry Christmas!

Wright is chair of the Taos Tree Board.

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