Monday, December 22, 2014

Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner translated by Benjamin A. Smith

I'm noticing that a growing trend among Christians is to forgo the celebration of Christmas.  I once belonged to a church that gave the holiday barely a nod.  No carols, no advent, a scant Communion service on Christmas Eve.  More than one friend informed me that the holiday has become too secular, too materialistic and its practices are more pagan than Christian.

This was all surprising, even shocking, to me because I grew up in a family that attended a church where the entire church year was celebrated.  Advent started the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was the day we put up the Christmas Tree, Nativity set, and all our other decorations.  Each Sunday we lit the advent candles, read the scripture for that week and sang carols.  We weren't taught to believe in Santa Claus, but we didn't care because presents are presents and coming from our relatives rather than the Jolly Old Elf was just fine with us.

After I left my parents' home I came to realize that not everyone was raised as I was.  This caused me to reevaluate my own customs and traditions.  Why do I celebrate Christmas?  There's no mandate in the Bible for it.  The only occasion that is explicitly called on to be remembered is the Lord's Supper and Christ's death and resurrection.

So why do we celebrate Christmas?  Are most people actually celebrating the Mass of Christ?  Why put a tree in our house and cover it with ornaments?

Because of my questions I have been researching the origins of many church traditions.  During this Christmas season I read a book about the Christmas tree.

Bernd Brunner is a German freelance writer who, according to the dust cover inset, "explores the intersection of cultural history and the history of science."

In Inventing the Christmas Tree, Brunner traces all the threads back to the earliest records of people decorating trees and keeping them in their houses.  The earliest record is 1414 in Estonia where a tree was set up in front of the town hall for a dance.  Another is in 1419 where the Freiburg Fraternity of Baker's Apprentices saw a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel in the local Hospital of the Holy Spirit.

At first the Church prohibited the cutting of trees for Christmas, but eventually the nobility and bourgeoisie began the practice of putting trees up and decorating them with presents in the form of cookies, nuts and fruit.  Later, the poorer classes also began to put trees in their houses as well.

The Evergreen was chosen because of its perennial greenness.  Greenery was celebrated prior to the Christmas tree or even Christianity.  The ancient Romans also celebrated with greens.  Still the color represented a belief in the eternal.  Eternal life, the immortal soul.  Candles were added as "stars".  This symbolized the Holy Spirit or the light that came into the darkness (John 3:19).

What I didn't know was that for many years Christmas trees were considered Protestant (the Luther tree) and even into the late nineteenth century Catholic aversion to Christmas trees was so strong they called it the "Tannenbaum Religion".  In 1909 two Benedictine monks spoke of the "fraud of the Tannenbaum tradition" in their Lexicon for Preachers and Catechists.  Anti-tree sentiment eventually lessened and I daresay that today there are as many Catholic households that contain Christmas Trees as Protestants in the United States.  It is still uncommon in Catholic countries.  In these countries small Nativity sets predominate.

Tree decorations also changed through out the years.  At first they were adorned with candles and all sorts of edible goodies such as sweets and fruits.  Sugar cookies were shaped to look like knights, birds, hearts, flowers or pretzels.  By the nineteenth century decorations with Christian symbols became common.

Silver thread also adorned the trees, some say this was to represent snow, others say angel hair, still others as a reminder of summer or of the threads that were woven into church vestments in the Middle Ages.

The final section of the book describes different tree stands, the practice of putting presents under the trees and the different sort of trees people choose to best represent their families beliefs and needs.

The book is illustrated with Vintage post cards of the turn of the last century.  All in all a very charming book.

So should we celebrate Christmas?  Are we celebrating the pagan past?  Are we being greedy for presents (I plead guilty on that one), has it become too secular?

I can only answer for myself.  I am an old fashioned traditionalist.  No one has to celebrate Christmas if they don't want to, but as for me and my house we will remember the birth of Christ through our cultural heritage and traditions.  Merry Christmas and God bless you all!



  1. Great post on this Sharon.

    As you know I am a non believer. I celebrate Christmas wholeheartedly. I love the appreciation and the coming together of family and traditional. I love spreading and reminder of how important goodwill, love and charity are. As I think you also know I have a lot of respect for many Christian ideals.

    Secondary to all that I also enjoy the celebrations and the food :)

    Ironically I also am disappointed in the commercialization materialism of the holiday of the holiday. I certainly understand how Christians would be especially disenchanted with all that.

    On a positive note I do think that a lot of people who fall a bit deeply into the materialistic end of it also partake in the charity, family connections, and goodwill.

    I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas!

    1. Thanks, Brian. I'm with you, it's easy to judge others en masse but I think most people love their families and want to give them happiness on a special holiday.

      Origins don't matter. I'm focusing on the birth of Christ not pagan practices. And none of us have to be materialistic if we don't want to.

      I also wish you a wonderful Christmas and blessed New Year.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.