Christmas tree (Weihnachtsbaum)

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Weihnachtsbaum/ Christmas tree

Of the many traditions involving plants associated with Christmas, the Christmas tree is probably the most beloved. A wide-eyed child gazing at his or her first Christmas tree is far removed from ancient Romans or Druids shouting incantations to a decorated tree. Yet, it is from these cultures that the Christmas tree custom originated. During their mid-winter festival, the early Romans decorated trees with bits of metal and replicas of their god, Bacchus. They also placed 12 candles on the tree in honor of their sun god. During the same season, in Northern Europe, Druids honored their main god, Woden, by tying fruit to tree branches and offering cakes, fashioned into birds, fish, and animals. The Druids, too, placed candles on the boughs of the trees to honor their sun god. One legend regarding the first Christmas tree says an evergreen sprang from the center of an oak cut down by St. Boniface in 8th-century Germany. The oak symbolized paganism, and its death brought an end to the old ways. The new tree was to be "the sign of endless life, for its leaves are evergreen." Another legend credits Martin Luther, the founder of the 16th-century Protestant movement, with being the first to add holiday decorations to an indoor tree. As he walked home through the forest one clear winter night, he observed the beauty of the stately evergreens and the stars sparkling through the branches from above. When Luther arrived home and tried to describe the beautiful experience to his wife and children, he was unable to find the words. To illustrate the scene, he went to the woods and returned with a small fir tree which was erected in the home and decorated with lighted candles. By the middle of the 16th century, decorated standing trees became popular in Germany and France. The Christmas tree was introduced to America around 1700 by German immigrants, but the custom did not become popular with most Americans until the middle of the 19th century. Although the records are not too clear, the first decorated Christmas tree may have been set up by homesick Hessen soldiers during the Revolutionary War. In fact, a Christmas Eve celebration by them may have provided Washington with the opportunity to turn the tide of the Colonial forces in 1776. On that fateful day, Washington's men had little for which to be thankful. They were cold, hungry, and poorly clothed. The Hessians were confident of victory and seem to have begun their festivities with the drinking of grog the previous evening. The attack by Washington found them ill prepared for the rigors of battle. The first recorded account of a Christmas tree seems to belong to Charles Follen in 1832. He was a political refugee from Germany and a teacher at Harvard. He decorated a tree as part of a Christmas party for his small son, as a remembrance of similar events in the fatherland. Another political refugee from Germany, Charles Minnegerode, made the Christmas tree famous in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1842, he became a teacher of Greek and Latin at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. He decorated a tree for Christmas in the home of a friend, Judge Nathaniel Tucker. From this beginning developed the custom of lighting a community tree each year on Christmas Eve near the Tucker residence in the town of Williamsburg. The first Christmas tree in a church seems to have been in 1851 by Pastor Henry Schwan in Cleveland, Ohio. At first, his parishioners objected to this pagan practice. Some members of the congregation even threatened him with harm. But the minister convinced his flock that Christmas trees were a Christian rite, and opposition soon stopped. New customs, even those as fine as the decorating of Christmas trees, often receive strong resistance when first introduced. But hot tempers cool, enthusiasm grows, and new practices become old traditions. Katharina Hines

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