Thursday, December 15, 2011


Could be that ‘Once upon a time…’ is a proper opening to the story, but in the year 723 a British monk and missionary, later to be known as St Boniface, was propagating Christianity near the town of Fritzlar in Germany, speaking to a crowd of Germanic Druids. The site of their gathering was around the Donar Oak, a sacred site of the pagan Germanic people. Boniface called upon the pagan god of thunder to strike him down if he cut the holy tree. Wielding an axe, he began to chop at the great oak tree, but halfway though his task a great wind blew the ancient tree over. The Druids stood by in awe waiting for their god to strike the man down. Out of the crush of small trees and shrubs smashed by the falling oak, the Christian monk indicated a small fir sapling still standing and said to the crowd, “Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child.” The story goes on to tell of Druids converting to Christianity.

The custom of trees playing a part in celebrations of the Christ Child’s birth take on certainty in sixteenth century Germany when fir trees, both indoor and out were decorated to commemorate the 25th of December. Decorations of the day were ‘roses cut of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gilt, sugar.’ By the 1700s, the Christ tree had become a tradition firmly established. The custom spread throughout western Europe, but was slow in reaching England. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German consort asked the queen to adopt the German custom of decorating fir trees at Christmas.

The custom reached America via Pennsylvania Germans. The diary of Lancaster, Pennsylvania farmer Matthew Zahm describes in a December 20, 1821 entry the Christmas tree and its myriad decorations—first mention of a Christmas tree in the New World. The custom seems to have reached our shores late. In searching for a reason we need look no farther than Puritan morality which viewed Christmas trees, decoration and gaudy celebration as “pagan mockery,” penalizing such frivolity in Puritan societies of New England. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law fining people for any observances beyond church service, including the hanging of Christmas decorations. This stern brand of solemn celebration continued until an influx of German and Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century undermined Puritan strictures. The celebration of a festive Christmas was also helped by a popular magazine of the 1800s called Godey’s Lady’s Book which offered hints for household decorating, Christmas recipes and instructions for making homemade tree ornaments. It was this magazine that convinced thousands of American women that Christmas could be a festive holiday as well as fervent holy day.


A word about the familiar and often misunderstood abbreviation for Christmas, Xmas…

Not a modern abbreviation by any means, it began with the Greeks. In Greek, the first letter of the word ‘Christ’ is X, spelled out in full the word is Xristos (Christos). Sometime around the sixteenth century ‘Xmas’ was popular throughout Europe, with a general understanding that it meant “Christ’s mass.” It was only later that Christians unfamiliar with the Greek reference saw ‘Xmas’ as a disrespectful abbreviation, imagining it as an attempt to strip Christmas of its real meaning. There are some still who disapprove.


  1. Very very appropriate blog for this time of year and so interesting to learn how the use of the Christmas trees began.

  2. Too bad we lose the feeling of Christmas being a magical time that we had as children. Now it's lists and did we get a present for everyone. But I do try to stop and remember back when such excitement came with putting up a real tree and seeing presents appear underneath it. And the tree smell was the smell of anticipation.


About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America