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By: Pauline Ho
I vividly remember the first time I laid eyes on a Christmas tree. It was November 1979, one month after arriving in Canada from a UN refugee camp in Malaysia.
I had never seen anything so beautiful. A massive tree in the middle of downtown Toronto beautifully decorated with gleaming balls, velvety bows and ablaze with millions of lights.
That Christmas tree became ingrained in my mind as a symbol of Canadiana. A yearly tradition that I carried with me into early adulthood – the desire to have the picture perfect Christmas tree to celebrate the birth of Christ.
As years went on, I began to question where these traditions came from? Nowhere in my reading of the bible was there decorating of a tree to celebrate the birth of Christ. How did a decorated evergreen tree become the international symbol for Christmas?
Ancient people from around the world have placed special meaning on plants and trees that remained green all year around in cold climates. The decorating of our homes during the festive season with pine, spruce and fir trees can be traced back to ancient peoples hanging evergreen boughs over their doors and windows to keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.
Evergreen boughs reminded the ancient people of the Northern hemisphere of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return during their winter solstice celebrations on December 21st and 22nd.
During this solstice, the early Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes that symbolized the triumph of life over death when the sun god Ra began to recover from the illness of winter that made him weak.
The early Romans celebrated solstice with a feast called Saturnalia, a special time of peace and equality when wars could not be declared, slaves and masters could eat at the same table, and gifts were exchanged as a symbol of affection and brotherhood. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
In Northern Europe, the Celts decorated their druid temples with evergreen boughs that signified everlasting life. Further up north, the Vikings thought evergreens were the plants of Balder, the god of light and peace.
The first recorded history of a decorated Christmas tree can be traced back to Riga, Latvia in 1510. Early medieval trees in this area were decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers, and were set aflame while people sang and dance around them.
Not until 1846, when Queen Victoria, her German husband Albert and their children had their portrait drawn in front of a fir tree with gifts hanging from the branches, did it become a worldwide tradition.
Since then, more than 300 million trees are grown annually on farms resulting in a two-billion dollar industry. That number does not include the permits sold by national parks in Canada and the United States for people to cut trees down from the forest.
The Christmas tree has come a long way from its pagan roots to becoming an international symbol of celebration that transcends Christianity. Now it is the main feature of a consumer holiday marked by Santa’s naughty or nice gift-giving list. It seems no Christmas is complete without opening gifts under the perfectly decorated tree.