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Friday, December 7, 2012

Origins of a few Christmas Traditions

Did you know that Christmas tree decorating and using the clippings of evergreen shrubs as decorations for Christmas has been a controversial practice at times in Western history? For instance, when the Roman Church decided in the fourth century that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25, some of the pagan celebrations of the Roman Saturnalia (celebrated at the same time of year) were carried over, such as feasting and exchanging gifts. But others were too controversial to carry over....

Using the clippings of evergreen shrubs from the landscape to decorate houses, a common practice during the December celebrations of Saturnalia, was strictly forbidden by the Church. The associations between decorating with evergreen shrubs and paganism were just too strong. Already in the early third century Tertullian had warned his fellow Christians against falling into the Saturnalian rut by using laurel wreaths as Christmas decorations (Tertullian, "On Idolatry," XV).

But the controversy over Christmas tree decorating and using clippings of evergreen shrubs as Christmas decorations is not relegated to that remote piece of history. In the sixteenth century John Calvin objected to observing the Christian calendar -- which includes Christmas and Easter -- because he felt such celebrations promoted irreligious frivolity. It was in this same century that Germany, by contrast, was establishing Christmas tree decorating as we know it today, launching the modern history of the Christmas tree.

 But in England the Puritans, influenced by Calvin, forbade the observance of Christmas. And it wasn't until Queen Victoria's reign that Christmas tree decorating "arrived" to stay as a Christmas tradition in England, thanks to the influence of Prince Albert (see The Christian Calendar: A Complete Guide to the Seasons of the Christian Year, Cowie and Gummer, p.11). Not coincidentally, Prince Albert had been born in Germany.

Given its roots in English history, America was predictably late in adopting such signs of frivolity as Christmas tree decorating. The Massachusetts Puritans, in particular, frowned upon such pagan backsliding. But the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century was bound to dilute these anti-Christmas tree decorating sentiments.

There you go, so know you know that frivolity versus being dead serious has been an issue through out time.


  1. I'm really glad that we are able to use evergreens in our Christmas decorating nowadays. The fragrance of the needles and the beauty of the ornaments and lights are real treats. Great blog post, Laura. I enjoyed reading it. :-)

  2. Interesting article, enjoyed reading it. Glad we have our Christmas tree traditions and here to stay.

  3. What I find interesting is that even back then, people argued about nonsense rather than talking about the true meaning of a holiday. Whether one uses evergreens or not is really beside the point. Fascinating!