“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your branches green delight us.”

the Christmas tree is a universal symbol of rebirth, of light in the darkest time

On December 25, 1943, the acrid smell of cordite hung over the rubble barricades of Ortona, Italy, where Canadians and Germans were engaged in grim hand-to-hand combat. Even amid the thunder of collapsing walls and the blinding dust and smoke darkening the alleys, the men of The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and The Loyal Edmonton Regiment were determined to celebrate Christmas. They chose the abandoned church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli as their banquet hall.

The dinner was set out on long rows of tables with white tablecloths, and a bottle of beer, candies, cigarettes, nuts, oranges, apples and chocolate bars at each setting. The companies ate in relays. As each company finished eating, they went forward to relieve the next. The menu was soup, pork with applesauce, cauliflower, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, Christmas pudding and mince pie. In the corner of the room was a small, decorated tree. Even amidst the dread of war, that most universal of Christmas symbols provided comfort and hope.

Though intimately associated with Christianity, the Christmas tree has a pagan origin. Many pagan cultures cut down evergreen trees in December and moved them into the home or temple to recognize the winter solstice, which occurs sometime between December 20 and 23. The evergreen trees seemed to have magical powers that enabled them to withstand the life-threatening powers of darkness and cold.

Legends about the first Christian use of the tree include that of a woodcutter who helps a small hungry child. The next morning, the child appears to the woodcutter and his wife as the Christchild. The child breaks a branch from a fir tree and tells the couple that it will bear fruit at Christmas time. As foretold, the tree is laden with apples of gold and nuts of silver. By the 1700s the Christbaum, or “Christ tree,” was a firmly established tradition in Germany.

The famous English engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their tree in 1848. The German-born Albert helped to popularize the Christmas tree in Britain and Canada (Illustrated London News).

It is widely believed that Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. From Germany the custom of the decorated tree spread to other parts of Western Europe and eventually to North America.

The Christmas tree made its first appearance in North America on Christmas Eve 1781, in Sorel, Quebec. The baroness Riedesel hosted a party of British and German officers. She served an English pudding, but the sensation of the evening was a fir tree in the corner of the dining room, its branches decorated with fruits and lit with candles. After what the family had suffered over the past two years, the baroness was determined to mark their return to Canada with a traditional German celebration.

Baron Frederick-Adolphus Riedesel was commander of a group of German soldiers sent by the Duke of Brunswick to help defend Canada. Riedesel and his family were taken prisoner during the disastrous British offensive in northern New York in 1777. They were not released until 1780, when they returned to Sorel.

The Christmas tree was popularized in England only in the nineteenth century, by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German consort. Son of the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (a duchy in central Germany), Albert had grown up decorating Christmas trees, and when he married Victoria, in 1840, he requested that she adopt the German tradition.

The first time a Christmas tree was lit by electricity was in 1882 in New York. Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison, lit a Christmas tree with a string of 80 small electric light bulbs, which he had made himself. These strings of light began to be produced around 1890. One of the first electrically lit Christmas trees was erected in Westmount, Quebec, in 1896. In 1900, some large stores put up illuminated trees to attract customers.

Today the Christmas tree is a firmly established tradition throughout Canada, where the fresh scent of the evergreen and the multicoloured decorations contrast with the dark nights and bleak landscape. Beyond its pagan and Christian origins, the Christmas tree is a universal symbol of rebirth, of light in the darkest time, of hovering angels, and of the star that points to the place of peace.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

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