What is the most popular, most essential element of the holiday season around the world? While some would say Santa, the Nativity, or Hallmark Christmas movies, I have something else in mind that's a universal symbol of survival in a time of darkness- the humble Christmas tree.
The Christmas holiday season coincides with a long-observed human celebration of the winter solstice- a time when the days reach their shortest and darkest. Cold and brutal winter months lay ahead, and late December has been a choice time for celebrating since well before the birth of Jesus. (which astronomers think actually happened during the summer).
All during the months of November and December the earth around us has been dying and the weather has been colder and harsher. Trees have been dropped their leaves, birds have been migrated away, insects have disappeared, and grass has gone dormant. The one exception to this annual die-off is the magical evergreen tree. Evergreens have different types of tightly wound leaves that stay on and stay green, even during the coldest periods of the winter. Those needles do eventually get replaced, often in the Spring, but they last all winter as a sign that life (and photosynthesis) is still going on.
Ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, and Chinese all used evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life, but it was the Germans who popularized the trees as Christmas centerpieces starting in the 16th century. Because there was no electricity, the Germans actually used lit candles to light up their trees, which had to have been a huge fire hazard. But the combination of green leaves and bright lights would carry on to this day as symbols that the dead and dark winters were nothing to fear.
Today we have artificial lights to give extra power to this important symbol, and some 30 million trees are sold in the US every year. Artificial trees have also become popular, and can now come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. From the tiny Charlie Brown Christmas tree on a stick to the towering 75 foot tall Rockefeller Center tree in New York, these hardy evergreens have come to symbolize the Christmas season to the point where it would be impossible to celebrate without one.
Every Christmas tree is different and every decoration holds a meaning to the families that decorate it. Some decorations and ornaments are passed on for generations, and popular ornaments include a year on them to remind people the year they were bought. In a way, the tree becomes a family symbol of its history, which only adds to the meaning as families gather around the tree every year to exchange presents.
The ways to decorate a tree are varied and vast. Popcorn garland strings, tinsel, Hallmark ornaments, lights that blink in time to music, ornate glass balls, handmade ornaments, and many memories of people and pets adorn our trees. And at the top there is often an angel or Christmas star to protect it, while at the bottom there is a tree skirt and array of wrapped presents.
I have a lot of issues with the entire Santa Claus mythology, and I have serious doubts about Christianity as it exists today. But I love the holiday season, the music, the syrupy movies, but most of all the trees- symbols of life at a time of death and darkness. The evergreen pine, spruce, and fir trees transcend the religious and commercial aspects of the season and remind us of family, traditions, and the more spiritual aspects.
This holiday season take a good look at the decorated trees in your home and environment and really take them in. Appreciate them and their significance. And for goodness sake don't throw them in a landfill when you're done- recycle them so their nutrients can nurture dozens more trees.