A little evergreen tree or a big one ornamented with bauble and tinsel and gleaming with lights has come to be our symbol of Christmas. All over America and in nearly every country of Europe, extending even to Asia and the far-flung outposts of civilization, this colorful and decorative object has a very special kind of meaning. Not more than a century ago Charles Dickens was referring to the Christmas tree as “that pretty German toy.” Even then it was not new, but its spread from Germany had been somewhat slow over a period of 250 years. Few of the royal family in England or the populace at large in the 1840’s realized that here was the paradise tree in new dress revived from medieval miracle and mystery plays dating back to forgotten times. In America the Pennsylvania German settlers of the 19th century made it the center of their “home and heart fete” and, wherever they traveled and set up homes, men and women of German origin introduced their beloved symbol of Christmas with reverence, devotion, and joy. A truly novel idea, the decorated evergreen tree, proved to be a happy inspiration for the rediscovery of Christmas in the midst of hostile influences in America, a century ago.
This much-loved jewel of Christmas, with a background of folklore nearly as rich as-that of the Christmas crib, radiates the sentiment and warmth of the Ageless Story. It has inspired scores of legends and an endless number of stories. Poets and composers have made it the subject of their praise and, for countless millions of children, it has been the acme of _their hopes and the answer to their dreams. Likewise, for all of us who love Christmas and see its glory and its meaning through the eyes of children, the tree will be forever bright and sparkling.
Now each year at Christmas, forty million decorated evergreen trees brighten this land to herald the greatest of feast days and holidays in the modern world. Practically unknown a century ago, the Christmas tree has become so much an integral part of the season of greatest joy that we would not feel the presence of Christmas without the festive tree. How and when it came to us and how its popularity grew have been told in fact and fiction a thousand times, but most of the accounts, fanciful and delightful as they are, have overlooked its true origin.
Is it a pagan symbol, or was it inspired by a passage out of Isaiah? Or did it really come out of the Garden of Eden? To get a proper setting for the Tree and what it means, we must turn the pages of history and look into the very beginning of Christmas. The spirit imbued by Peace on Earth to Men of Good Will brought a new meaning and a new kind of hope to a weary world nearly 2000 years ago. ‘That spirit, although dimmed at times by war and pestilence and the greed of men, has become, nonetheless, our Light of the World, symbolized in countless ways and most dramatically in the Christmas tree.
In an age dominated by science, with undue emphasis on things literal and factual, we tend to lose sight of another side of our nature-that which deals with myth and symbol. These inherent attributes are part of us more than we may often admit or realize. Like traditions, they explain in a simple, almost unbelievable way, things we accept and understand without knowing why.
Regardless of its size or form, whether live or artificial, highly ornamented with baubles, lights, and fancy ornaments or decked with homemade cookies, nuts and gum drops, it matters not-the Christmas tree, topped by a shining star reminiscent of Bethlehem, carries a precious message. From the oldest chronicler of the most ancient legend whose name has been lost in the mists of time, to the youngest schoolgirl who writes a prize story about the Christmas tree, this message remains fresh and universal.
The best stories about the Christmas tree have probably never been written and never may be put on paper, for much of the feeling imbued by a glistening evergreen, at this hallowed time of year, is difficult to put into words. It is a kind of co-mingling, or blending, if you will, of sentiment, awe, and wonder. To capture, ot as it were, to recapture in cold type that warmth and mirth is not easy. Nor should it be. It is something we sense from within and it belongs happily in the realm of memories-not real perhaps-an image too bright and too colorful for our everyday world, for “it sings its own song without words in all our hearts.” .