Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Visual History of the Christmas Tree

Ah, the Christmas tree, everyone's favorite old pagan rite adopted by Christians:
It's interesting to note though that veneration of the Christmas tree existed long before Christianity came on the scene. Just recently in Østfold, Norway and Bosulön Province in Sweden, archaeologists have discovered over 75,000 rock carvings at more than 5,000 different sites made between 1,800 and 500 B.C.E.. All of these carvings are spruce trees. The archaeologists suggest that because the trees are evergreen, the inhabitants looked on them as sacred symbols of life, survival and immortality.

Research indicates that the adoption of the Christmas tree in Europe happened in about the 11th century. At this time, the vast majority of people were illiterate and so to teach the great-unwashed public the stories of the Bible, the church sanctioned 'mystery plays.' One of these, performed on the 24th December, was the 'Paradise Play,' which told the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The play ended with the promise of a coming saviour, Jesus Christ.

These plays were primitive to say the least. The 'Paradise Play' only had one prop, the 'Paradise Tree,' which was hung with apples. There was no available apple tree in the middle of winter so the evergreen conifer came into its own.
As with many Church traditions, however, the early Paradise Tree became an excuse for drunken debauchery, so people took their trees indoors:
By the 15th century, moral standards had slipped so low that the church banned the Christmas 'Paradise Play' because it, and the other plays, had become an excuse for debauchery (nothing new there then!) People had become used to the tree though, and so they took it indoors. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve on 24th December, and in the home the tree was decorated with apples (to represent the original sin) and home-made wafers (to symbolise the fruit of life.)
Thus, the semi-modern-day Christmas tree was born, somewhere in central Europe (people argue over whether the Christmas tree originated in Norther Germany, Estonia/Latvia, or somewhere else in that region). This rather pretty infographic picks up the story from there, tracing the visual history of the Christmas tree through the centuries (but mostly through the last century, which has probably seen the greatest amount of Christmas tree technological innovation:


As I said yesterday, I'm headed over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house for the holidays, so this may or may not be my last post of the year - we'll just have to see how busy I am and how connected to the Interwebz I manage to be. In case I don't see you until 2012, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, and a very Happy New Year!

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