Thursday, December 1, 2022

December's Great Tree

Santa Claus came to town a week ago (on Thanksgiving), but for New Yorkers the closest thing to an "official" start of Christmas came last night (despite the wet weather) with the annual lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. 

The first Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center was put up on Christmas Eve in 1931, during Rockefeller Center's construction, when Italian-American workers decorated a 20-foot balsam fir. Two years later in 1933, the first official Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was put up and lit, establishing what has since been a New York holiday tradition. In recent decades, the lighting ceremony has been broadcast nationally and has turned into a popular show of celebrity appearances, most of which I am quite content to skip, tuning in just in time for the tree-lighting itself. 

There is always something special about that moment - whether in the privacy of the family home or in a public space with a watching crowd - when the Christmas Tree's lights go on for the first time. Whether large or small, the Christmas Tree's bright and beautiful lights make a monumental impact against the darkness of these wintry nights.

Like most folkloric customs, the ultimate origin of the Christmas Tree is uncertain. The use of evergreen ranches to decorate homes during the pre-Christian pagan winter holidays is well known, as is the continuance of such customs into the Christian era. German tradition associates Martin Luther with the custom of bringing a tree indoors and illuminating it with candles at Christmas. From its apparent origins as an explicitly Protestant custom, the Christmas Tree spread slowly but inexorably throughout German lands and beyond. Britain's Queen Charlotte (born a German Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) is said to have displayed a Christmas tree at a children's Christmas party in 1800, and her granddaughter, the future Queen Victoria, was familiar with the Christmas Tree in her childhood home. After her marriage to Prince Albert, the custom spread more widely among upper and middle class British families. Well before then, the custom was familiar in the U.S. in those parts of the country where Christmas was commonly celebrated.

By the time I appeared on the scene, the Christmas Tree was standard in most American homes, and tree-lighting ceremonies were common in public places. The 1965 Christmas TV show, A Charlie Brown Christmas satirized artificial trees as emblematic of the increasing secularization and commercialization of Christmas. I also remember evergreen trees in church when I was a child, but without lights. When fully lit and ornamented Christmas Trees became common in churches I don't really know. We certainly had them in all the churches where I have served. In my 10 years as a pastor, I happily blessed a tree set up right outside the church entrance annually on our parish's patronal feast, December 8.

When I was growing up, a fresh tree was purchased shortly before Christmas and decorated a day or two before the holiday, a task typically completed only on Christmas Eve itself. The more recent anticipation of all aspects of the Christmas season and the ubiquity of artificial trees has caused many to set up their trees right after Thanksgiving (or even before). Indoors as well as outdoors, the brightly lit tree has everywhere become part of the standard December decor - allowing for multiple interpretations, whether Christian or pagan, of the light overcoming winter's darkness.

Perhaps one of the more memorable Christmas Tree lightings of the 20th century - before such events became commercialized pop culture spectaculars - was the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree by FDR and Winston Churchill on Christmas Eve 1941, just weeks after Pearl Harbor -  

Probably somewhere in Ukraine there is a Christmas Tree that this year may evoke similar sentiments!

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