Like most holiday practices, the Christmas tree is thought to be a result of a combination of several customs, both religious and traditional.
Evergreens are a symbol of life throughout the winter months, when most trees shed their leaves and the landscape seems bleak. According history.com, plants that remained green all year held special meaning for a variety of groups.
Societies likely used branches of evergreen trees to welcome the return of the sun following the winter solstice on or around Dec. 21, which marked the shortest day and longest night of the year. Christians later decorated with evergreen branches in celebration of everlasting life, which coincides with the celebration of the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25.
Germany is credited with beginning the Christmas tree tradition. Devout German Christians brought evergreen trees into their homes and decorated them in celebration of the birth and life of Christ.
The first trees were decorated with edible things such as gingerbread and apples, according to holiday-inspired history site, whychristmas.com .
Christmas trees were made popular in Britain in the mid-1800s after the royal family of Queen Victoria, husband Prince Albert and children included a decorated tree in Windsor Castle. Later, according to whychristmas.com, a drawing of the Windsor Castle tree was published in The Illustrated London News. The drawing was republished in a book in 1850 and was distributed across the United Kingdom and the U.S., where the tradition eventually spread.
“The Christmas Tree Fairy”
Carole Shankel, Also known as “The Christmas Tree Fairy,” Carole Shankel began her tradition of dressing up as the holiday icon in 1982.
“I originally made the costume for a friend’s Halloween costume party,” said Shankel, a retired teacher in Coweta County. “The first few years though, I made the mistake of attaching glass ornaments to the outfit.”
According to Shankel, the design of the whimsical costume has come a long way since the 1980s, but the concept behind the outfit remains.
“It brings me such joy,” she said. “It makes people smile and, in many ways, that alone spreads a bit of kindness.”
She noted that for years she wore the costume to parties and, occasionally, to East Coweta High School where she taught English and Literature for several years. Since retiring, Shankel has added to her list of appearances. These days she can be found in local nursing homes, reading to children at the library and in bookstores, visiting elementary classrooms and even stopping in local businesses.
A tree to appreciate
Submitted by Lisa Sewell, Newnan, Ga.
“For many years we had a very large (artificial) tree, bedecked in all its splendor until a few years ago when I suffered a near-fatal medical emergency. I spent almost two weeks in the hospital around Thanksgiving, and was in very rough shape when I finally made it home in December. I was stunned to find a tiny, undecorated, pre-lit tree on the end table in the living room as I was helped through the door. My husband and son explained that it was all they could manage given the gravity of the situation, yet we were delighted more than anything to be together and have each other. Friends came over a few days later to pray over us and brought gifts, including a couple of simple ornaments with verses from Scripture on them; I hung them right away, and used the ribbon from the packages to drape over the tree. That simple, humble tree became a tangible reminder of the real meaning of Christmas, the gift of an innocent life, born to die, that we might live forever in the presence of God, because of Jesus’ birth for all who believe in Him. Anything else is just frosting on the cake. This will be the third year that we place the little tree on the table after having struggled with more surgeries and other ensuing issues. We recall its story and give thanks to God, for He is so good, all the time, even when circumstances are not.”
Through the years
Submitted by Melissa Maxson, Texas
“I put up a new tree this year. I tend to have ‘themes,’ in decorating each year. The only tradition I keep is that I buy a new ornament or two every year to signify something important that happened that year. I hang the ornaments in chronological order, so as you look around, the tree tells our family’s story. So, I call it the ‘story tree.’ It holds every precious memory I have had for 17 years: my and my husband’s first Christmas together, new homes our family has lived in over the years, new babies, the start of school for my oldest child, favorite childhood characters, and special places we have visited. There is an ornament commemorating 9/11, and one for when my husband re-enlisted in the military, along with his previous trips to the desert. There are also ornaments from the kids, of course, even one for my oldest child’s first fish caught, and the first 12-point buck my husband shot while hunting years ago — there is even an ornament signifying my having lost 60 lbs. It's all there. Each year I look forward to adding more and I love going back through all the ornaments and reliving each memory. Each one is special to me.”
A White House Christmas
Franklin Pierce was the first president to introduce the Christmas tree to the White House in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday school children. The first National Christmas Tree was lighted in the year 1923 on the White House lawn by President Calvin Coolidge.
A symbol of progress
In many parts of the world, the inclusion of a toy train circling the bottom of the Christmas tree is a tradition just as important as the evergreen plant itself.
It is thought that the practice began around the time that manufacturer Lionel began to produce the first electric toy trains, in the early 1900s.
Toy trains, according to wonderopolis.org, may evoke sentimental feelings at Christmas time and signify families traveling long distances during the season or troops returning home from war by train for the holiday. The nation’s railroads were the primary source of transportation, including the shipping of gifts, during this time.