The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Christmas Tree is a Rich Tradition
by Ro Wauer

Christmas in many parts of the country is a snowman-and-skiing time of year, but for those of us in South Texas, where a white Christmas is a once in a lifetime event or little more than a nostalgic memory, the Christmas tree is our most obvious and cherished symbol of the season.

It is that time of year filled with greeting cards, Santa, “goodwill to man,” and Christ. But whatever our religious preference, the Christmas tree seems to stand apart as being something special. A bright tree, covered with tinsel and bulbs, has a priority place in all our homes year after year.

No knows for sure where the Christmas tree symbol began. Scandinavians once worshipped trees, and when they became Christians, evergreen trees became part of their Christian festivals. Others argue that it originated with Martin Luther, who, about 1500 tried to reproduce an outdoor scene of snow-colored pines, complete with the Star of Bethlehem, within his home. By 1561, an ordinance in Strasbourg, France, limited residents from cutting bushes for yuletide “more than the length of eight shoes.”

Ornaments may have begun with precivilized humans who hung meat and other food on trees to keep it safe from wild animals. Those good may have evolved into cookies and candies, and eventually tinsel was added. Do you remember the story of how tinsel was invented? It was after spiders made a mess of things, spinning webs over a poor women’s tree for her children, that a fairy godmother turned the trick to treat.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, nurserymen could not sell their cultivated evergreens for landscaping and began to cut them for Christmas trees. Now, more than two-thirds of all Christmas trees sold in America are plantation-grown trees. Of the more than 40 million trees grown and cut annually, 27 percent are Scotch pine, 22 percent are Douglas fir, 12 percent are balsam fir, and the remainder includes a wide variety of pine and fir. Balsam fir is normally the most expensive because it usually possessed the perfect “Christmas tree shape and retains its needles longest.

Elizabeth Silverthorne, in her lovely book, Christmas in Texas, points out that during the 1800s, after President Franklin Pierce first brought a Christmas tree into the White House, “Texans decorated their trees with whatever was handy: red berries, moss, mistletoe, cotton, pecans wrapped in colored cloth or paper, strings of popcorn, red peppers made into garlands, and homemade cookies and candies.” She adds that “by the late 1800s Christmas trees were all the rage. The Austin Statesman advised its readers ‘If you can’t pay two dollars for one, take a hatchet, go out in the woods and poach on somebody’s forest. You must have a Christmas tree or there will be no Christmas.’”

Attempting to explain the Christmas tree custom only fogs the fun. Trees will be part of the Christmas scene as long as kids from two to ninety get starlight in their eyes when they focus on the star atop the tree that, after all, symbolizes the real spirit of Christmas.

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