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Opinion >  Editorial

Why we put a tree in the house

The following editorial is from the Chicago Tribune.

Some holiday traditions are easy to understand:

A feast on Thanksgiving to recall our Pilgrim forebears.

Fireworks on the Fourth of July to express exuberant pride. Flags on Memorial Day to honor Americans who died in wars.

But Christmas trees? That’s a puzzle on more grounds than one. There’s no mention of festive trees in the Bible story about the birth of Jesus. Nor do they make a lot of practical sense. They’re expensive, they don’t last long and they present a disposal problem afterward.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan is among those mystified that this time of year, “We go out and chop down a tree and put it in our living room. Kinda sounds like the behavior of a drunk man, really.”

A couple of centuries ago, most Americans might have agreed. But today, nothing symbolizes the holiday more than a brightly decorated evergreen.

Every year, more than 30 million real trees are sold in the United States, most of them pines or firs. That’s along with nearly 10 million artificial ones. There’s a whole industry attached: Upward of a million acres in this country are used for Christmas tree farms.

So how did this odd custom take root, so to speak? The early immigrants from Europe didn’t pay much attention to Christmas, which they regarded as a pagan event. Puritan Massachusetts actually outlawed celebrations, with offenders subject to fines. It didn’t become a federal holiday until 1870.

And Christmas trees? They emerged in the 16th century in Germany, and came along with the millions of German immigrants who arrived on these shores during the 19th century. The trend got a boost from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, whose fondness for Christmas trees made them all the rage in England.

By 1858, the Hartford Daily Courant was waxing eloquent about “Christmas trees, resplendent with red and golden gifts.” But they had critics all along. In 1883, an editorial in the New York Times noted hopefully a decline in the popularity of “the German Christmas Tree – a rootless and lifeless corpse.”

The origins go back further yet, to ancient tree worship and pagan rituals tied to the winter solstice. Legend has it that St. Boniface appropriated trees for Christmas back in the 7th century, putting a pre-Christian tradition in the service of Christianity.

By now, of course, the tradition has outgrown that adopted purpose. Even many non-Christians join in putting up Christmas trees, decorating them and surrounding them in wrapped gifts.

And why wouldn’t they? There’s nothing to evoke the holiday spirit like the scent of pine, the twinkle of lights and the merging of the natural world with hearth and home. That’s why the Christmas tree caught on, and why it has endured.

St. Boniface, you were on to something.

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