Monday, December 18, 2006

1776 and Christmas Trees

David McCullough
I've just finished listening to the tape of David McCullough's 1776, a gripping account of the events in that pivotal year (read by the author). As Commander-in-Chief, Washington made several major blunders in his attempt to defend New York, and had the British generals managed their strategy better, the war might have been over before it started. By December 1776, hope was dim, and the Continental Army was in sorry condition. Many soldiers had completed their terms of duty and were on the verge of returning home, but the promise of a bonus coupled with Washington's pleading persuaded most of them to stick it out a little longer. Against all odds, Washington's decision to cross the Delaware and surprise the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas Day during a miserable spell of cold, snowy weather turned the tide and lifted the spirits of the country. Some stories claim that the Hessians were vulnerable because of their drunken partying, although McCullough points out that few contemporary accounts bear this out. Whatever the case, undoubtedly the Hessians had erected Christmas trees, transplanting that German tradition to U.S. soil. And it is possible that their carousing and inattention as they huddled at their trees were in part responsible for the rebel victory that turned the tide of the American Revolution.

This Year's Tree, a Douglas Fir
  • Many cultures, including the Egyptians and Romans, treasured evergreens as symbols of everlasting life or the promise of spring renewal. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at winter solstice, decorating with greens and exchanging gifts.
  • Druids used evergreens in winter solstice celebrations, placing mistletoe and evergreen branches above their doors for good luck.
  • Legend has it that 1,000 years ago St. Boniface, who converted Germany to Christianity, came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. He angrily cut it down, whereupon a fir tree sprang up in its place. He took this as a sign of the Christian faith.
  • From the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians brought evergreens indoors to show hope for spring. Martin Luther began decorated indoor trees with candles around 1500. The candles supposedly represented the light of Christ or the star of Bethlehem.
  • In New England, the Puritans banned not only Christmas trees but Christmas itself. So if the Hessians erected trees at Christmas in 1776, that was still an alien custom.
  • Queen Victoria visited relatives in Germany, where she met Albert, whom she eventually married. Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree tradition from Germany to England, and the custom, including the practice of hanging blown glass balls from the branches, caught on.
  • In 1851 Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all. The Christmas tree tradition had begun to catch on. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and within 20 years, the custom was widespread.

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