December 12, 2003 at 12:00 p.m.
Tree worship was common among European pagans and the early Christians. Their custom was decorating their homes, inside and out, with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil. It served as a duel purpose of encouraging birds to nest near their homes in the spring.
The first people to call this decorated tree a Christmas tree were the Germans living west of the Rhine. It became such a popular practice that in 1755 the citizens of Salzburg were forbidden from taking small evergreens out of local forests. In 1841, Queen Victoria’s husband, the German-born Prince Albert, introduced his children to the Germanic Christmas tree, and its popularity exploded. The Illustrated London News, in its 1848 Christmas supplement, published the first story about Christmas trees.
Early in the same century, German settlers to the United States brought the Christmas tree with them. By 1840, the decorated tree was commonplace throughout the country. Mark Carr, of New York, began the first American Christmas tree business in 1851. In 1909 the first public Christmas tree was erected in Pasadena, California.
The yule log comes from the practice of lighting a log to help encourage the sun to make a return journey. It was felled at least a year in advance of its use. It was brought into the house and lit at the beginning of the Christmas festivities. It would then burn for 12 days, symbolizing everlasting life.
Kissing under the mistletoe originated at least as far back as 16th century England. However, the mistletoe branch hung in homes for centuries before it became associated with a kiss, or with Christmas. The ancient Druids, on their island home of Anglesey, off the coast of northern Wales, were the first to notice the mistletoe. They noticed its lack of roots, hanging high in the trees, and its fruit and glossy green leaves in winter. They determined it came from heaven, the sun, or both.
Norse legend has a different explanation. Balder, the sun god, was slain by a dart made from the one substance that could kill him––mistletoe. His mother, Freya, turned mistletoe into a small plant. She hung it high in the trees so that it could never harm anyone again. As civilization developed, the mistletoe remained firmly attached above the mantelpiece and in doorways of homes, just where the ancients had placed it.
The holly tree is the plant most frequently associated with Christmas in the British Isles. Holly was widely used in winter solstice ceremonies, like the Saturnalia in ancient Rome. The thorns of the holly leaf were thought to have protective powers. It was considered bad luck to cut down a holly tree, but snipping a few sprigs to decorate was permitted.
The desire for living things at the darkest time of the year is one of humankind’s most basic yearnings.