Although it is generally agreed that the Christmas tree in its current form came from Germany in the early 19th century, the tradition of decorating a tree to mark winter celebrations dates back hundreds of years to Roman times, when they used to decorate evergreen trees with small pieces of metal to celebrate Saturnalia.

¡¡¡¡In medieval times the ¡¯Paradise Play¡¯ was performed every year on 24 December. This depicted the creation of Man and the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and always included an evergreen hung with apples which represented the apple tree of temptation.

¡¡¡¡There is a legend that St Boniface, an English monk, came upon a group of pagans gathered around an oak tree who were preparing to sacrifice a child to the God Thor. In order to stop the sacrifice, and save the child¡¯s life, St Boniface is said to have felled the tree with one blow of his fist. Later on, a fir tree grew in place of the oak and this, St Boniface told the pagans, was the Tree of Life and represented the Christ Child.

¡¡¡¡Legend also suggests that, in the late 16th century, Martin Luther (the founder of the Protestant religion) was the first to decorate an indoor tree with candles when he attempted to recreate the stars shining over a forest of evergreens.

¡¡¡¡The first mention of decorated trees being taken indoors came in 1605 in Germany – a country with a long Christmas tree history! The trees were initially decorated with fruit and sweets together with hand made objects such as quilled snowflakes and stars. German Christmas Markets began to sell shaped gingerbreads and wax ornaments which people bought as souvenirs of the fair and took home to hang on their tree.

¡¡¡¡Tinsel was also invented in Germany in about 1610. Up until fairly recently real silver was used, which was pulled into wafer thin strips by special machines. This was durable but tarnished quickly and many experiments took place to try and find an alternative – including a mix of lead and tin, which was too heavy and kept breaking. It was only in the mid 20th century that a viable alternative was found.

¡¡¡¡Artificial trees were invented in the 1880¡¯s in a bid to try and stop some of the damage being caused to real trees due to people lopping the tip off large trees, thus preventing the trees from growing any further. It got so bad in Germany that laws had to be brought in to prevent people having more than one tree.

¡¡¡¡Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, is credited with being responsible for introducing the custom of the Christmas tree to the British public by decorating the first English Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841 using candles, sweets, fruit and gingerbread.

¡¡¡¡The popularity of the Christmas tree grew in Britain during the first half of the 20th century, with trees becoming bigger and more elaborately decorated with bells, baubles and tinsel. However, the onset of the Second World War resulted in a ban on cutting down trees for decoration and people resorted to having small, artificial tabletop trees bearing home made decorations. These were often taken down into the air raid shelters when the sirens sounded to provide a bit of Christmas cheer!

¡¡¡¡This all changed following the war, and large trees were erected in many public places to celebrate Christmas. The most famous of these is the tree in Trafalgar Square, London which is an annual gift from the Norwegian government to give thanks for the help they received from Britain during the war.

¡¡¡¡The original Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was born in the ancient southeastern Turkish town of Lycia early in the fourth century. His generosity was legend, and he was particularly fond of children. We know this primarily through Roman accounts of his patronage of youth, which eventually led to his becoming the patron saint of children. Throughout the Middle Ages, and well beyond, he was referred to by many names none of them Santa Claus.

¡¡¡¡Children today would not at all recognize the St. Nick who brought gifts to European children hundreds of years ago except perhaps for his cascading white beard. He made his rounds in full red-and-white bishop¡¯s robes, complete with twin peaked miter and crooked crozier. He was pulled by no fleet footed reindeer, but coaxed in indolent donkey. And he arrived not late on Christmas Eve, but on his Christian feast day, December 6. The gifts he left beside the hearth were usually small: fruit, nuts, hard candies, wood and clay figurines.

¡¡¡¡During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, St. Nicholas was banished from most European countries. Replacing him were more secular figures, who in general were not at center stage at that point in history..The Dutch kept the St. Nicholas tradition alive. As the “protector of sailors,” St. Nicholas graced the prow of the first Dutch ship that arrived in America. And the first church built in New York City was named after him. The Dutch brought with them to the New World two Christmas items that were quickly Americanized.

¡¡¡¡In sixteenth century Holland, children placed wooden shoes by the hearth the night of St. Nicholas¡¯s arrival. The shoes were filled with straw, a meal for the saint¡¯s gift laden donkey. In return, Nicholas would insert a small treat into each clog. In America, the shoe was replaced with the stocking, hung by the chimney.

¡¡¡¡The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas “Saint Nikolass,” which in the New World became “Sinterklass”. later changed to “Santa Claus”.

¡¡¡¡Much of modern day Santa Claus lore, including the reindeer drawn sleigh, originated in America. Dr. Clement Clarke Moore composed “The Night Before Christmas” in 1822, to read to his children on Christmas Eve. The poem might have remained privately in the Moore family if a friend had not mailed a copy of it (without authorial attribution) to a newspaper and became part of the Santa legend.

¡¡¡¡It was in America that Santa put on weight. The rosy-cheeked, roly-poly Santa is credited to the influential nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nast. From 1863 until 1886, Nast created a series of Christmas drawings for Harper¡¯s Weekly. These drawings, executed over twenty years, exhibit a gradual evolution in Santa from the pudgy, diminutive, elf-like creature of Dr. Moore¡¯s immortal poem to the bearded, potbellied, life-size bell ringer familiar on street corners across America today. Nast¡¯s cartoons also showed the world how Santa spent his entire year constructing toys, checking on children¡¯s behavior, reading their requests for special gifts. His images were incorporated into the Santa lore.

¡¡¡¡Santa is known throughout the world in many different names, such as:

¡¡¡¡Saint Nikolaas (Sinter Klaas), from the Dutch Father Christmas, from the English Kris Kringle, from the Germans Befana, from the Italians Bobouschka, from the Russians (a grand motherly figure instead of a male)


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