...an evergreen, usually a balsam or douglas fir, decorated with lights
and ornaments as a part of Christmas festivities. The use of
evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands as a symbol of eternal life was
an ancient custom of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree
worship, common among the pagan Europeans, survived after their
conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating
the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away
the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime,
it survived further in the custom, also observed in Germany, of placing
a Yule tree at an entrance or inside the house in the midwinter holidays.
The modern Christmas tree, though, originated in western Germany.
The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was
a fir tree hung with apples (paradise tree) representing the Garden of
Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on
December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung
wafers on it (symbolizing the host, the Christian sign of redemption),
in a later tradition, the wafers were replaced by cookies of various
shapes. Candles, too, were often added as the symbol of Christ.
In the same room, during the Christmas season, was the Christmas
pyramid, a triangular construction of wood, with shelves to hold
Christmas figurines, decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star.
By the 16th century, the Christmas pyramid and paradise tree
had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.
The custom was widespread among the German Lutherans by the
18th century, but it was not until the following century that the
Christmas tree became a deep-rooted German tradition. Introduced into
England in the early 19th century, the Christmas tree was popularized
in the mid-19th century by the German Prince Albert, husband
of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with candles,
candies, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbon and
by paper chains. Brought to North America by German settlers as
early as the 17th century,
Christmas trees were the height of fashion by the 19th century.
They were also popular in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and
The Netherlands. In China and Japan, Christmas trees,
introduced by western missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries,
were decorated with intricate paper designs.
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