Christmastime is finally here! A time for peppermint hot chocolate, twinkling lights, and Christmas trees galore. Speaking of Christmas trees, the locals around the Memorial have probably noticed the influx of Christmas cheer within the Bedford Welcome Center because of the Festival of Trees celebration. What’s that you ask? The Festival of Trees is an annual Christmas celebration where local businesses and organizations compete for the best decorated tree within a pre-determined theme. The locals are encouraged to come out and vote in order to determine the top three, who will then equally distribute the winnings. This year’s theme is Christmas on the Home-front, 1944 and after previewing the trees, I must say this year will be a close one for sure! Of course the National D-day Memorial is represented and I am partial to our tree, but nonetheless, please take the time to visit the Welcome Center and vote for your favorite tree. The trees are up from November 19, 2014 until December 31, 2014, so the voting has already begun! The Welcome Center will also have extended hours on December 5, 12, 13, 14, and the 19, until 9 pm, so you will be able to enjoy the beauty at night. The 12th, 13th, and 14th also coincide with the Memorial’s Luminary Project, so you will be able to enjoy both events for the holiday season. I implore you to visit both events this season; it will put you in the holiday mood and give you some perspective on those lost and holiday hardships for the soldiers.
In the spirit of the theme, let’s talk about the history of the Christmas tree! How did the tradition begin, how did it evolve, and how has it changed today?
|Pagan depiction of the use of evergreens|
Since the beginning of time, evergreens have had a special meaning for people in the winter. Pines, spruce, and firs stay green all year long despite the cold, hence why people used such lush vegetation during the holidays. In some countries, it was thought that evergreens could keep away evil spirits in the night. Also, before Christianity, the pagans believed the Sun God was sick or weak during the winter and the longest night of year, known as the Winter Solstice, marked the turning point for him to regain his strength and the use of evergreen boughs reminded them of the promise of spring and summer. In fact, many cultures used evergreens to symbolize the renewal of spring, such as the Egyptians, early Romans, the ancient Celtic people, and even the ferocious Vikings.
|Martin Luther and family around their first lit tree.|
As many of you might know, the German’s are associated with starting the Christmas tree tradition we know and love today. Did you know they also began the traditions of advent calendars, gingerbread houses, and our cherished Christmas cookies? Christians of the 16th century began to bring in whole trees, not just boughs, into their homes to be decorated. Some Christians would build wooden pyramids and decorate that with the evergreens and candles to symbolize the birth of Christ. In Germany, it is believed that Martin Luther, Protestant reformer, was the first to use candles upon the tree because it reminded him of the brilliant stars in the night sky and the beauty had to be represented on the tree.
|The Royal Family decorating their Christmas Tree, 1840s|
Despite such an early start for the Christmas tree tradition, it was not until the 1830s that the first Christmas tree was put on display in America. Ironically, Pennsylvania German settlers brought the tradition to America much earlier, in the 1740s, but it took nearly one hundred years for the Christmas tree to shed its pagan stereotype in the minds of American Christians. One of the reasons why it took so long for the Christmas tree to become popular in America was because of the New England Puritan’s strict observance of Christmas celebrations. They believed decorating Christmas trees, singing carols, and overall joy would violate the sacred birth of Christ. Strict penalties were handed out to any of those who were partaking in those ‘heathen traditions’. These strict laws stayed true until the 19th century when the enormous influx of German and Irish immigrants changed the American tradition. England also saw a change in tradition in the 1840s when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who was German, were illustrated in the London News decorating their own tree with their children. Anything done by the royal family, particularly Queen Victoria, instantly became popular with the country. Within fifty years, German ornaments were extremely popular in the United States and were shipped overseas on a regular basis and, of course, Americans preferred having the biggest tree possible, while European traditions call for a more modest tree of about four feet in height.
Modern Era of the Christmas Tree
|Decorating the Rockefeller Center tree, 1930s|
The most famous Christmas tree display, at least for Americans, is the Rockefeller Center tree in New York City, New York. The tradition began in 1931, when construction workers of the Depression era placed a small and simple tree in the center of the square, the next year they did the same, and then the next; shortly, Christmas tree lights and decorations were added. Today, the tree typically has over 25,000 Christmas lights!
Not surprisingly, World War II caused another great change for the Christmas tree and brought us even closer to what we expect today. Since many of the prized Germany and Japanese made ornaments were no longer being shipped overseas, the Corning Glass Company of New York began their glass ornament production, virtually eliminating the need for anything else! Also, ribbons and bows were scarce because of the material used, as well as the fir trees themselves. Lumber was needed for the war effort, so production began on artificial trees to fill in the void.
|White House Christmas tree, 1944.|
The traditions we know and love can be seen throughout most of the world, especially in Protestant dominated countries, with a few variations. Most cultures decorate an evergreen tree in various was, but many Catholic dominated countries tend to focus more on the Nativity scene, connecting to the roots of the holiday, like Italy and Mexico.
The first commercialized selling of the Christmas tree was not until the 1850s in the United States.
The tallest living Christmas tree is about 122 feet tall and 91 years old, in Woodinville, Washington.
The first National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony held at the White House was in 1923, by President Calvin Coolidge.
Christmas trees are grown in every state, including Hawaii.
|WWII soldiers decorating a palm tree for Christmas.|
It was not uncommon for many soldiers on the front-lines, in World War II, to decorate random trees around them, or to chop one down for their makeshift headquarters.
World War II soldiers in the Pacific theater used palm trees to replace their traditional trees from back home.
I hope to see you all at our Luminary Nights and the Festival of Trees!
Take Care and don't forget to vote for your favorite tree (a.k.a the D-Day Memorial's tree),