CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Perhaps the most widespread symbol of the celebration of the Christmas holidays is the Christmas tree. Storied with lore, both ancient and modern, the Christmas tree finds itself in homes, stores, offices, churches and public squares.
How did an evergreen tree become the center of attention for a religious holiday? And if you have a real one, how do you take care of it?
Christmas tree history
Most authorities agree that the celebration of evergreen trees is a pre-Christian notion that was incorporated into the Christmas holiday. Evidence suggests that cultures ranging from ancient Egypt to China had sacred rituals and holidays celebrating evergreen trees.
The Christmas tree most likely comes to us from ancient pagan European celebrations. These customs likely blended into the Christmas celebration both because of convenience (the festivals were at the time of the winter solstice) and as a tool to gain new converts to the early church.
Well before the Christmas tree, folks in Poland were decorating evergreen branches hung from the ceiling during the winter festival of Koliada, which eventually was incorporated into Christmas. The branch was believed to guarantee a good harvest in the next year.
The hanging branch was replaced with the Christmas tree, which has its origins in 15th-century Germany. It gained more popularity after the Protestant Reformation in Germany, and became a staple of Protestant German Christmas celebrations.
Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, is believed to be the first to light the tree using candles. (I'm sure we have Mr. Luther to blame for many burned-down houses.)
The Christmas tree didn't go beyond the bounds of the Rhine Valley until the 17th century, when it started to spread throughout Europe.
Real vs. artificial
Now to modern day, when 25 million real Christmas trees and 10 million artificial trees are purchased each year. Most of the real trees sold are cut, but it is possible to buy one with the roots still attached for planting later. There are some disease issues with Christmas trees this year, thanks to a blight resulting from our wet summer, but there isn't a projected shortage of trees. Of course, I'm going to advocate for a real Christmas tree, and there are a number of reasons why.