The concept, or perception, that a symbol must only have one meaning to all people is nonsensical. However, this phenomenon is very common. Take the modern Christmas tree for example. A Christmas tree is simply any variety of evergreen tree, that is cut and placed in the home during the winter holidays. Or is it? Some argue it is a symbol of Christianity. Others argue it is a symbol of heathen pagans. Some say the evergreen tree violates basic constitutional principles. In reality, the evergreen or Christmas tree represents many things to many people, and its history in our culture is as long and varied as the modern arguments about its purpose.
My recent article about the history of Christmas lights, and discussion of Brian Murray’s article, “Christmas Lights and Community Building in America”, spawned some interesting further research. What I learned is, there is an incredible amount of controversy, and misinformation about the this modern holiday symbol. As with many things, it turns out, the object itself is only a reflection of the meaning projected on it by our culture.
Some people strongly oppose the use of Christmas trees in holiday displays, on the grounds that it is a symbol of Christianity. Others object to the Christmas tree because they believe it is a Pagan custom. More recently, environmentalists have objected to the use of Christmas trees for environmental reasons. I objected to the holiday trees because the needles always fall off and make a giant mess in my house. I know there is some basis in fact, for my objection to the Christmas tree, but what about the rest of these objections? It turns out, that the origin of the modern Christmas tree, is likely the result of a combination of many different traditions from many different cultures.
Religioustolerance.org has a fairly in depth discussion of the history and controversy of the modern Christmas tree. They trace the origin of the Christmas tree, to an ancient Middle Eastern custom of cutting down, carving, and decorating trees. This heathen practice is claimed by some to be condemned by the bible itself in Jeremiah 10:2-4. Other Christians argue that this interpretation is taken out of context, and that the meaning of this passage relates to the worship of false idols.
Some trace the origin of the Christmas tree to 16th century Western Germany when it is claimed that the Paradeisbaum or Paradise Tree was brought into homes to celebrate the annual Feast of Adam and Eve. Apparently, the annual Feast of Adam and Eve was a common day of celebration in the middle ages, which marked the day of the original sin. The Paradeisbaum was decorated with red apples, and is used as a prop in plays, where the story of Adam and Eve was acted out.
According to Murray, the tradition of the Christmas tree originated with the Druids, who used the holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life. The Druid practice of bring greenery into the home was expanded on by the Germans and Scandinavians, who began the practice of bring fresh cut evergreen trees into their homes as symbols of life and the upcoming spring.
Others attribute the origin of the Christmas tree to man’s original fascination with the tree that defied the cold of winter.
The controversy over the Christmas tree has continued into modern times. As recently as 2000, the display of Christmas trees in public was outlawed in Eugene, Oregon, on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.
The Christmas tree, and the lights that adorn it, are a fantastic American holiday tradition. It originates not in one specific culture or religion – rather, the modern Christmas tree is a wonderful collection of many traditions and customs, and that’s what makes it so special.