Regardless of our personal beliefs, we must concede our society celebrates two kinds of Christmas. There is the traditional religious celebration and there is the more commercialized secular celebration. Those observing the former often have difficulty reconciling the latter, but it is a fact of modern life that secular Christmas is inexorably intertwined with its religious cousin.

Regardless of our personal beliefs, we must concede our society celebrates two kinds of Christmas. There is the traditional religious celebration and there is the more commercialized secular celebration. Those observing the former often have difficulty reconciling the latter, but it is a fact of modern life that secular Christmas is inexorably intertwined with its religious cousin.

Nowhere do we see this more plainly than in the venerable institution of the Christmas tree. The exact point in history at which the pagan solstice custom of lighted trees, common among the pre-Christian people of Germania, was co-opted by Christendom. According to popular legend, the adaptation of Christmas trees owes to St. Boniface. Now the patron saint of Germany, Boniface is said to have used the symbol as a means through which to convert the pagans of 6th and 7th century Europe, but the scholarly provenance of this tale is dubious.

Some have even suggested that early Christian church prohibitions against decorated evergreen boughs date to the Prophet Jeremiah. Those subscribing to this position cite Jeremiah 10:2-4, “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”

What we know with greater certainty is that the town of Riga in Latvia had a Christmas tree as early as 1510. We also know that a 1610 English visitor to Strasbourg reported seeing a tree decorated with “wafers and golden sugar-twists and paper flowers of all colors.”

Details such as these suggest that by the 17th century Christmas celebrations in central Europe regularly involved the lighting of a Christmas tree. Even so, the custom first appeared in England as late as 1800. Charlotte, the German born wife of King George III, is said to have erected a decorated tree for a party she hosted on Christmas Day. An account of the festivities reads, “in the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

Interestingly, Puritan settlers in America generally eschewed what the Pilgrims’ second governor, William Bradford, called, “pagan mockery,” at Christmas time. Early 18th century German immigrants were less reserved in their seasonal observances. Moreover, these Hessian settlers are generally credited with introducing Christmas trees to North America.

By the middle of the 19th century Christmas trees had become popular in American culture. In 1856 Franklin Pierce, the 14th U. S. President, was the first to place a Christmas tree in the White House. President Calvin Coolidge began the annual White House tradition of lighting the National Christmas Tree in 1923.

While we now acknowledge their ubiquity and connection to the season, we can also ask if the custom of a Christmas tree might contain a deeper symbolic meaning for us. To do this, it is fitting that we turn to the traditional German song, O Tannenbaum. This song is particularly apt as a source for seasonal reflection because it too, is a thing of uncertain origin and myriad translations. Just there are countless individual expressions and experiences of Christmas, there are innumerable versions of the old tune. A common interpretation contains this verse: O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your boughs can teach a lesson. That constant faith and hope sublime lend strength and comfort through all time. O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your boughs can teach a lesson.

Indeed they do. Flanked by friends and family in the twinkling glow of warm lights and dense evergreen branches we find a timeless metaphor for stalwart faith and shining optimism. Merry Christmas to all.