Of course it’s old news now that ancient Egyptians and Romans kicked off the Christmas tree tradition by using evergreens to celebrate late winter renewal of agricultural growth, and so forth. Next up, you got your Druids. That crowd left a dark — some say pagan — stain on the practice.
But there’s no use going into all that. The facts are that as late as the 1840s many in America believed Christmas trees to be pagan, unacceptable. What does the Good Book say about all this? You sort it out, but here’s part of it.
Christians find support for Christmas tree customs in Leviticus 23:40: “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.”
Naysayers, Jeremiah 10:1-25: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the people are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”
Pennsylvania German settlers were largely responsible for bringing Christmas trees to America. New England Puritans did their best to snuff that stuff out. Oliver Cromwell preached against them. The General Court of Massachusetts outlawed them. But the young and fashionable Queen Victoria and her German Prince Albert and their young’uns celebrated Christmas by dancing around them.
And what became popular in the court became popular among the British public. And what became popular among the Brits became popular among East Coast American society.
Fast-forward: Now every year, 95 million families in America put up a Christmas tree. A good chunk of the cost of each tree goes to live ones, and the average price is bumping $75 per tree. Multiply that by 95 million, and my guess is that Christmas tree farmers hold tight with Leviticus 23:40, North Carolina especially because it is second only to Oregon as the nation’s biggest Christmas tree producer. The Christmas tree biz is huge. Carol Doby at Doby Christmas Tree Farm in Cameron will tell you that much, as will the good folks at Gulley’s Garden Center.
The Christmas tree ornament industry is also big doings. It can thank Martin Luther and Thomas Edison for that good fortune.
Lore is that “Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his 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.”
Copying Luther’s Christmas tree candlelight habits would probably not be the best idea. Real Christmas trees need water and if they don’t get it, they dry out. Candles would be, well, incendiary. As it is now, on average, 260 home fires begin with Christmas trees each year, causing 12 deaths and $16.4 million in property damage.
Edison’s the guy who really lit things up with the first commercially practical incandescent lightbulb. His assistants came forth with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees. (That was around 1890, about the same time Edison’s assistants touted the utility of electricity for the electric chair, much to first candidate William Kemmier’s dismay; reportedly, the thing literally burned him to death.)
Decorative Christmas lights, themselves, plus dumb stuff like leaving them on all night, result in an additional 150 home fires per year, causing another eight deaths and $8.9 million in property damage.
There are approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. every year. That’s a bunch, but the handwriting is on the wall. According to the American Christmas Tree Association, 81 percent of this year’s Christmas trees will be artificial. That’s up from zilch just a few years back.
Real Christmas trees are healthier for the environment. Artificial trees are healthier for the pocketbook. People use the things over and over. Over an average 10 years of use, that artificial tree will save you roughly $675.
One place real trees will probably always be safe is the White House. States vie for the chance to donate one. Last year’s came from Newland, North Carolina; this year’s, from Pitman, Pennsylvania.
Merry Christmas, all; eid milad saeid; buon Natale; Fröhliche Weihnachten; Feliz Navidad. And a Happy New Year, too!