We do rather odd things in the name of being jolly around Christmas time.
We knock on the doors of random strangers in order to sing them songs that have been playing on the radio since October, we hang grossly oversized socks over an outdated crevice so that they can be filled with foods which, in sufficient quantities, will make the sock fit, and we hang parasitic plants from doorways and insist that those caught underneath them engage in osculation.
However, probably the most bizarre tradition, and yet the most popular, is the practice of setting up an evergreen tree inside our homes and decorating it with little lights, painted glass orbs, and a few strange trinkets. As comedian Jim Gaffigan puts it: "It kind of sounds like the behavior of a drunk man."
However, birds aren't born ready to fly, and likewise, traditions don't just pop up out of nowhere. So the question of the hour is, how did this ludicrous behavior come to be socially acceptable to begin with?
Stereotypes aside, the answer can be found in Germany. One popular legend states that Martin Luther created the first Tannenbaum as a way of recapturing a particularly stunning night sky for his family, but even the most staunch followers of the man will confess that this has no historical basis. The Christmas Tree probably arose during his lifetime however, with the first recorded use of a decorated evergreen coming from Alsace, Germany in 1521.
Around 1550 the first ballads praising "its lovely branches" were circulating, and by 1605 the latest Strasbourg homes were well accustomed to bringing a bit of nature into their homes.
It took considerable time for the tradition to spread outside of Germany, but the crucial turning points came in the 19th century. During that time, the Tannenbaum traveled into the Slavic countries through osmosis, and to France in 1837 when Princess Helen of Mecklenburg married the Duke of Orléans. The real breakthrough came with the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who set up a tree in Windsor Castle in 1841, bringing tradition to the entire British Empire.
America was slow to pick up on this custom, largely because many of the first settlers of the United States were Puritans, and Puritans, it seems, were allergic to fun, issuing the death penalty to any who dared hang up Christmas decorations. However, time and jaunty immigrants from Ireland and Germany served to distance the American people from this mindset and shortly after New England's upperclass caught hold of the custom from their Victorian cousins, it spread throughout the states until it became the indispensable tradition we have today.
There is still of course the question of why those Germans first decided to start decorating trees in the first place. If we want to speculate, we could take note of the fact that across the planet, trees are considered to be a symbol of life. Evergreens in particular remind us of the fact that even when we are surrounded by darkness and cold and death, there is still life and the promise of life to come.
Page 2 of 2 - Decorating an evergreen tree is, by induction, a celebration of that promise. I think that's what Christmas is. It's a celebration of the promise of life to come brought to us by Christ, even as everything is dying around us.
Perhaps that's why, O Christmas Tree, "thy leaves are so unchanging:" to remind us. "O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How richly has God decked thee!"
Clarke Peterson is a 16-year-old student who lives in Leavenworth.