By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement
Christmas is just over a week away. Halls are decked, presents are wrapped, and Saint Nicholas is busy preparing for his busiest day of the year. When he visits the children of the world, he will leave his gifts underneath a Christmas tree, but why a tree? Why is an evergreen tree the prevalent symbol for Christmas? The history of the tree can be traced back many years.
The use of evergreens and other greenery had been used during the winter months for centuries, with it being a reported custom of ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. The evergreens represent life even through the cold, dark winter months. Through the centuries, the customs included adorning said evergreens with assorted decorations, like fruit, nuts, and paper flowers.
It was during the 18th century when the tradition truly took hold. While the tradition of the Christmas tree had been in England for a number of years, its popularity and prevalence was cemented in 1848 when an image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around a Christmas tree was published.
The Royal Family were the ‘celebrities’ of their day. Once people saw that the Royals had a tree, they too wanted to have a tree as part of their holiday tradition.
Early trees were lit with candles. This is, of course, before the invent of electricity, and having an open flame by a tree comes with its own inherent problems. A bucket of water would often be kept close to the tree in case any flames had to be doused. These tree candles are part of the Oshawa Museum’s collection.
Early Christmas trees were decorated with fruits, flowers and candles, which were heavy on the tree branches. In the 1800s German glass blowers began producing glass balls to replace the heavy decorations and called them bulbs.The first Christmas trees in Ontario were decorated with edible products, such as strings of popcorn, nuts and cookies. During the 1870s the first store-bought ornaments were introduced. They were made of tin, wax, tinsel, cardboard and glass. The oldest manufactured ornaments, made of tin, came in various shapes such as stars, crosses and flowers. Wax ornaments soon followed, the most popular design being an angel floating in the air. Icicles were introduced in 1878 and still remain a popular decoration.
On the Christmas Trees at the Museum, we also hide a glass pickle among our decorations. Why a pickle? Some believe this is an old German tradition (although many people from Germany today do not claim this tradition as their own). When decorating the Christmas tree, it is traditional to hang the pickle last, hidden among the branches. The first child on Christmas Day to find the Christmas pickle receives an extra gift!
Christmas trees and their official lighting are often seen as a symbolic start to the holiday season. The City of Oshawa always lights its official Christmas tree in mid-November, and this tree is among the large evergreens by Civic Square at City Hall. Toronto’s official Christmas tree, on the other hand, is usually a white spruce which is selected a year in advance from the Bancroft, Ontario area. In Boston, their Christmas tree is always from Nova Scotia, a gift from the province to thank them for their support after the Halifax explosion of 1917, the worst human-made explosion until the atomic bomb. They first sent a tree in 1918, a year after the event, and they have been doing it every year since 1971.
So whether you a have white spruce, douglas fir, or an artificial tree that is used year after year, decorate those boughs, thoughtfully hang those precious ornaments, and enjoy the tradition that has been around for centuries.