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Why do we put up trees at Christmas? This holiday tradition has a surprising past.

Christmas trees are an odd ritual, when you think about it. People all across the world travel to the nearby forest, chop down a tree, lug it inside their houses, adorn it with lights, decorations, and tinsel, and then haul it to the curb in January.

However, evergreen boughs have long been an important feature of pagan winter solstice festivities. Carole Cusack, a religious studies professor at the University of Sydney, says in an email that evergreens have been used in midwinter festivities since antiquity. They demonstrate that life and light have triumphed over death and darkness.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when and where these ancient practices evolved into the ones we know today. Several nations, for example, claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree, and several tales attempt to explain what it all signifies. Despite the fact that Christmas trees may be found all over the world, they originate in areas with abundant evergreen forests, particularly in northern Europe. Here’s how the Christmas tree became a modern emblem and sparked the birth of new customs.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree stands lit in New York. The 75-foot tall Norway spruce is lit by more than 50,000 LED lights. PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE BONDAREFF, AP IMAGES FOR TISHMAN SPEYER/XINHUA/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

In Northern Europe, there are different claims.

Both Latvia and Estonia claim that the first Christmas tree was cultivated in their respective nations. Latvian Christmas tree traditions date back to 1510, when a group of merchants known as the House of the Black Heads dragged a decorated tree through the city before torching it. In response to such allegations, Estonia stated that it had documentation that the same guild conducted a similar celebration in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city, in 1441.

A holiday market in Estonia’s capital Tallinn features a large Christmas tree. Both Latvia and Estonia claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree.
A Christmas tree towers outside St. Peter’s church in Riga, Latvia.

Historians have questioned both statements. Gustavs Strange of the National Library of Latvia in Riga told the New York Times in 2016 that the guild’s celebrations were most likely unrelated to Christmas. However, these two countries must still compete to see who has the nicest Christmas tree. A plaque in Riga’s Town Hall Square marks the location of the first Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree came from Germany.

Cusack believes that the Christmas tree we know today originated in the 1600s in the Alsace area of France. The area was once part of Germany, but it is now part of France. A Christmas tree was first shown at Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539, according to historical documents. The custom grew so prevalent in the area that Freiburg forbade individuals from chopping down trees for Christmas in 1554.

Folklore offers several interpretations on what the tree represents. Some believe it was inspired by the paradise tree, which appeared as a symbol of the Garden of Eden in a Middle Ages drama about Adam and Eve. Some believe that the Christmas tree sprang from Christmas pyramids, which are wooden constructions adorned with evergreen branches and religious figurines. “The Christmas tree was designed to be religiously neutral in the framework of Christianity,” she argues.

Still, German families continued to practice it, and it evolved through time to become what it is today. According to Cusack, Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer, is frequently credited with being the first to install lights on a Christmas tree. He accomplished this using candles rather than electric lights, which were not created until 1882. After wandering through a woodland at night under the stars. These customs were carried with Germans when they went to other nations. According to Cusack, Christmas trees could be seen all throughout Europe by the 1800s.

In the U.K., trees are becoming popular.

The first Christmas tree is supposed to have been introduced into the royal household by Queen Charlotte, the princess of a German duchy who married King George III in the middle of the 18th century. But it was another British monarch that transformed Christmas trees into what they are today: a symbol of the holiday season.

The National Christmas Tree is lit on the Ellipse south of the White House in Washington, DC.

The National Christmas Tree is located south of the White House in Washington, DC.

The National Christmas Tree is lighted up on the Ellipse, which is south of the White House in Washington, DC.

This image piqued the interest of royal watchers all around the world. Because Queen Victoria was a trendsetter in her day, the habit spread all across the world.

The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is now the most well-known in London. This tree has a long and fascinating history all across the world. Norway began supplying the United Kingdom with oil in 1947. Every year, Norway sends the United Kingdom a Christmas tree as a thank-you for assisting Norway when its government fled to the United Kingdom during World War II. After the Nazis took power.

In the U.S., there are events where people light up trees.

When Hessian forces joined the British in the late 1700s to fight in the Revolutionary War, they may have taken the Christmas tree custom with them. German immigrants introduced the practice to the United States in the years that followed, and historian Penne Restad claims that they “became a focus of attraction for other Americans” over time.

After 1850, when Godey’s Lady’s Book in Philadelphia republished the royal family’s Christmas scene from the Illustrated London News, an increasing number of American families purchased Christmas trees. However, the publication made a few changes. They removed Victoria’s crown and Albert’s royal sash, for example, to make them appear like an American family.

Today, two of the most well-known U.S. Many individuals start the holiday season by putting up their Christmas trees. President Calvin Coolidge oversaw the inaugural National Christmas Tree lighting in 1923. Ten years later, in 1933, New York City lit the first Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, which has since become a holiday must-see for both visitors and New Yorkers. Since then, both trees have been lighted up yearly, with the exception of a few years in the 1940s when they were not due to World War II regulations.

Russia has trees for the New Year.

Christmas trees have been popular in Russia for a long time. The beautifully illuminated trees in the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square every December, however, are not for Christmas. These are New Year’s trees, often known as yolka. They became a custom when Christmas trees were prohibited during the Russian Revolution.

When the Soviet government first came to power in the 1920s, it launched a campaign against religion. It began with things like Christmas, which it considered “bourgeois.” Because Christmas trees and other rituals were prohibited, the secular government began to promote New Year’s instead.

Syntagma Square features a ship decorated with lights at Christmas time in Athens, Greece.

By 1935, however, the Soviet authorities had altered its mind regarding the tree. In a publication, senior Soviet official Pavel Postyshev suggested that families celebrate New Year’s Day with “fir trees flashing with multicolored lights.” When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990s, Christmas returned to Russia. Nonetheless, the New Year’s tree has been a tradition ever since.

The scrap metal Christmas tree in Antarctica

Even though there are no trees in the South Pole, some Christmas tree traditions continue. In 1946, the crew of a US Navy mission destined for Antarctica celebrated Christmas at sea by hanging a Canadian spruce tree to their mast. After more than fifty years, researchers at the United States’ Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station built a Christmas tree out of scrap metal and decorated it with decorations. For a brief period, the scrap-metal tree was part of the Christmas celebrations at the Antarctic research station, with ironworkers adding new decorations each year. However, according to the National Science Foundation, the scrap-metal tree is no longer a component of the festivities.

The Greek Christmas boats

In Greece, people used to decorate Christmas boats instead of trees to honor St. Nicholas, the country’s patron saint and the protector of sailors. Families would place little wooden boats inside their houses to express their joy at seeing their sailors return home. Lighted boats would also be prominent in public squares in towns such as Thessaloniki.

In current times, the Christmas tree has surpassed the Christmas boat in importance. However, these boats may still be seen in certain island villages.

Taking down trees in Scandinavia

Scandinavian households have set aside a feast day since the 1600s to remove sweets off their Christmas trees and then toss it away. The 13th of January is Saint Knut’s Day. It was called after King Canute of Denmark, who reigned in the 11th century. The holiday is typically observed in Sweden on the last day of Christmas. Christmas is celebrated for 12 days in various nations.

People decorate their Christmas trees with cookies and other sweets for children to consume on St. Knut’s Day. When a family has finished removing the ornaments from the tree, they sing as they ceremoniously throw them out the door. (In Norway, the tree is chopped into pieces and burned in the fireplace.)

Swedes have begun to remove their Christmas decorations sooner, making St. Knut’s Day rituals less frequent. The custom, according to Swedish folklorist Bengt Af Klintberg, will carry on through the country’s traditional poetry and rhymes, according to the T.T. news agency in 2015.

Tió de Nadal, a Christmas tradition in Catalonia, waits on sale at a Christmas market in Barcelona, Spain.

According to NPR, this bizarre ceremony may have originated from an ancient ritual in which people burned tree trunks on fire to keep warm during the winter. But why must the log spit out its treasures? Cusack believes this has something to do with the Caganer, a defecating peasant character found in Catalan Nativity scenes. The Caganer symbolizes “the world flipped upside down when the poor or downtrodden are honored and the strong are pulled down,” according to Cusack. “The concept is that the feces feeds the planet, and the caganer is a good citizen.”

However, the true story of this Catalan practice remains unknown. It, like other Christmas tree legends, may be lost to time.

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