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A Charlie Brown Christmas Tree

Where Do Yule Trees Come From?


UP A TREE: Why in the world do we lug home a dead tree and prop it up in our living room every December? Whose idea was that?

Reason one: It’s, well, “traditional,” and society tinkers with tradition at its peril. Reason two: It’s fun, especially if you have wide-eyed little kids delighted by all the fuss but puzzled by still another odd thing adults do.

Barney Brantingham

The annual tree ritual is locked in our DNA, even in this sadly cynical age. The other day, Sue arrived home with the skinniest, scrawniest sliver of a tree I ever saw. “It only cost $10,” she exulted. (Ten bucks? I remember when you could buy a six-footer for that, but that went out with 25-cent gas and double features.) Sue and her friend Sandy had a ball hanging as much as possible on it.

Do not imagine that our hallowed Yule tree tradition began with some ruddy-cheeked British squire having his sons carry home a bushy specimen while his bonnet-clad wife and shivering daughters sang Christmas carols. And as far as is known, the stable where Baby Jesus was born was not illuminated by a pine tree with candles on its branches and a star on top. Our beloved Yule tree is actually part of (yes) pre-Christian winter rites. “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews,” we are informed by Encyclopedia Britannica. Digest all that while quaffing from the wassail bowl. (Wassailing is an ancient pagan tradition hailing from the cider-producing counties of southwest England and, by some accounts, is meant to “awaken” the apple trees and ensure a good harvest.)

The modern tradition of the Christmas tree may have been spawned in Germany as early as the 15th century. In any case, in Livonia, in 1584, the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow wrote of a tradition of setting up a decorated spruce in the market square where young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame.” Similar practices eventually spread to England and then to the U.S. There’s a claim that our first tree was put up by a Hessian soldier imprisoned in 1777. By now we’ve all heard the song O Tannenbaum sung a thousand times this season. But it means “fir tree” in German, not “Christmas tree.” The tongue-twister for that is Weihnachtsbaum. In 19th-century Germany, the Yule tree became associated with a feeling of cozy peace of mind, Gemütlichkeit.

Sue and the Christmas tree.
Click to enlarge photo

Barney Brantingham

Sue and the Christmas tree.

Remember tinsel? We lovingly drape silvery slivers on branches, fake icicles, to dress up the tree. Norman Rockwell’s famed one-happy-family Thanksgiving dinner painting can only be rivaled by the de rigueur Americana “trimming of the tree.” Back in those tight-purse tinsel days — way back when we used great care to hang each strand just right, before we started just tossing the stuff on helter-skelter, hoping too much wouldn’t fall on the floor — we’d also sit around creating those pasted-together chains of poster paper and stringing popcorn and cranberries on thread.

But, like love and other enterprises that begin with much enthusiasm yet end all too often with gritted teeth, the lugging out to the street of the once-loved tree is not something most of us look forward to. It’s a matter of jamming the tree through doorways, leaving a trail of needles and used tinsel. Ever tried to vacuum the stuff up?

and no matter what the Christmas cards showed, no candles were allowed on the tree for fear that a cat, child, or drunken adult would knock over the tree and burn the house down. It was bad enough that the feline would bat the ornaments so they shattered all over the floor. Recent Christmas history has recorded one of the greatest advances in civilized culture: elimination of those light strings where if one bulb goes out, they all go out and you have to scrounge around finding a replacement bulb, but you can’t find one and all the stores are closed.

When night fell on our one-block street, Sue crawled under a bookcase to plug in her Charlie Brown tree, a name hearkening back to the 1965 TV special featuring a tiny, pathetic thing … Bingo! Magic! The string of tiny white lights brought the tree to life, and we loved it. I went over to caress a branch. What? It’s artificial, purchased by Sue from a Carpinteria nonprofit benefiting a Haitian school. But I loved it all the more, our Weihnachtsbaum.

Merry Christmas and Gemütlichkeit to one and all. Time to dance around the Tannenbaum.

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