By ERIC FELTEN
When did the Christmas tree become the cause of petty conflicts rather than a source of simple joy?
To judge by recent Christmases, we will soon see one state or another (Rhode Island was the culprit last year) descend into squabbling over whether the large fir on the statehouse lawn should be called a "Christmas tree" or given the less religiously explicit title "holiday tree." Environmentalists and Christmas-tree farmers will issue competing press releases arguing over which has the larger carbon footprint: the millions of living trees massacred for the season, destined to be left curbside in January, dead, dry and spindly; or the petroleum-based artificial trees shipped from China.
Inventing the Christmas Tree
By Bernd Brunner
Yale, 99 pages, $18
But before we pine too much for the good old days, when a Christmas tree was cause for wonderment, not sniping, it is worth noting that some of the earliest records of the Christmas-tree tradition are to be found among the records of killjoy officialdom. As Bernd Brunner notes in "Inventing the Christmas Tree," the town clerk of Strasbourg, in 1494, put the kibosh on the local "custom of cutting off pine branches at the New Year and bringing them home." By the 16th century the custom was widespread enough to pose some threat of deforestation: In 1554, the city of Freiburg im Breisgau banned the cutting of trees for Christmas.
Troubles with Christmas trees—whether the threat of yuletide clear-cutting or the danger inherent in festooning a cut tree with lighted candles—were a German affair for the first three or four centuries of the tradition, though not universally German. The Tannenbaum (which simply means "fir tree") came to be associated, apocryphally or not, with Martin Luther. Because of that, many Catholics in Germany once disdained it. The "aversion of many Catholics went so far," Mr. Brunner writes, "that at the end of the nineteenth century many simply called Protestantism the 'Tannenbaum religion.' " As late as the 1930s, the Vatican was recommending manger scenes instead of Christmas trees as a more theologically sound sort of decoration. But the church today no longer sees a conflict—Christmas Eve at the Vatican's St. Peter's Square now features both a life-size Nativity and a towering Christmas tree.
It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that the tradition began to spread outside Germany. Christmas trees were a novelty in England by 1850, thanks to a royal example set by the German-born Prince Albert. Charles Dickens wrote a magazine article that year marveling at "that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree," which "everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects." Just seven years before, he had published his ghostly ode to English holiday tradition, "A Christmas Carol." Holly, ivy and mistletoe abound in the tale; there is not a Christmas tree to be found.
In the mid-19th century, the Christmas tree made inroads in America, too, a happy byproduct of German immigration. At least most people thought it happy. Not the jingoistic editorialist at the New York Times, who denounced "the German Christmas tree" as "a rootless and lifeless corpse." The trouble, it seems, was that the upstart immigrant tradition had displaced the Christmas stocking as the symbol of seasonal celebration, a change that "has been sincerely lamented by persons of artistic and devout tastes." The New York Times grinched that trees dripped "melted wax upon the carpet" and filled "all nervous people with a dread of fire." They had the "perfume of hemlock" and "should have no place in our beloved land."
Stocking stuffers notwithstanding, Americans generally took to the Christmas tree with greater enthusiasm than even its German champions. Soon the United States was helping to export the tradition, and the Christmas-tree practice began to show up around the world. Sometimes the tree was adopted along with Christianity. But in countries such as Japan, Mr. Brunner observers, the tree and other Christmas trimmings were simply incorporated into the indigenous gift-giving culture.
Does such multiculturalism make the tree both post-Christian and pre-Christian? It has often been suggested that the Christmas tree is a pagan custom co-opted long ago by pragmatic Christian evangelists. (In an ugly variation of this argument, Nazi propagandists urged the tree to be stripped of its association with a religion from "the Orient" and embraced instead as a celebration of pre-Christian Germanic culture.)
Yes, candlelight featured in pre-Christian solstice festivals. And no doubt one can find some misty antecedents involving tree worship. But a tree decorated for the Christmas season was hardly a direct adaptation. For all the echoes of ancient tradition, Mr. Brunner says, pagan practices weren't exactly at their peak in Europe in the late Middle Ages, when the Christmas tree was taking root. He explores a different source for arboreal imagery—the medieval "Paradise Play," in which the creation story would be acted out on Christmas Eve. Featured in the staged Garden of Eden was the Tree of Life.
Mr. Brunner meanders pleasantly through the many manifestations of the tradition over the centuries: trees hung with baked goods and fruits; trees hung with toys and ornaments; grand trees standing in the stately homes of the bourgeoisie; scrubby little pines dangling from the rafters of peasant huts; the Rockefeller Center tree; the Charlie Brown tree.
No matter the glittering splendor of one's own tree, or the superabundance of presents that its boughs may shelter, it is hard for us to capture the wonder that early Christmas trees created. "Before the introduction of electricity, light was treasured," Mr. Brunner writes. "A tree decked with candles created a completely new atmosphere; its radiance was much greater in the darkness of the past." We take light for granted, which dims the awe with which we view the Christmas tree—and perhaps saps some of the power in the description of Christ as a "light in the darkness," a description at the heart of the tree's association with Christianity.
It is a testament to the charm and appeal of the Christmas tree that it thrives even in the glare of our over-lighted modern world. Both familiar and exotic—how else can one describe a pine tree indoors? Mr. Brunner asks— the Christmas tree has been embraced as a religious icon and a secular folly. Do we ultimately know who "invented" the Christmas tree, and where? Not really. And Bernd Brunner is happy not to know, celebrating the Christmas tree as a mystery and, as such, in perfect keeping with the holiday it symbolizes.—Mr. Felten, a Washington-based writer, is the author of "Loyalty:
The Vexing Virtue."