Kate R. Walker
24 December 2019
Oh Christmas Tree!
It’s Christmas eve and the presents are wrapped, most likely sitting under your Christmas tree, or will be soon, once Santa arrives with his magical entourage of helpers. There are so many symbols of Christmas surrounding us right now; nativity scenes, Santa and wrapped presents tied up with bows and ribbons. The Christmas tree is the symbol that I love the most.
These tall and short trees, some trimmed and perfect, others scraggly and spare, are covered in lights, standing in darkened spaces, carefully covered with ornaments holding memories of places been and people held dear. They are joyfully brought into our homes, shopping malls, parks, and our holy sanctuaries where we sing carols and offer our prayers as we gaze into their sparkle with delight. We look at their evergreen branches and pyramid shape, and breath in piney scent wafting from nature’s bark, or humanity’s factory bottle. Some of us, love the tree from afar, its scent triggering sneezes and coughs galore. More and more of us have chosen to leave the ever-green trees in the forest’s den, letting them live on into the years so that others may enjoy the fresh air they breathe out.
The tale we’re told is that German immigrants brought this festive symbol, a tradition held dear and celebrated by the Germanic folk from long ago. Yet, this tale we find, like so many, has more behind it than told. Our beloved German immigrants arrived long before this tradition took hold in our country or theirs! For centuries greens and pines have been used to decorate homes for pagan holidays, reminding us of the renewal of life. But the Christmas tree and its candles were celebrated only in isolated German and American homes in part because of their suspicious pagan connections. It wasn’t until the early 19th century when one German immigrant invited over a popular young writer on New Year’s Day to witness his family’s tree tradition. She wrote about what she saw, and other families, upon reading about her magical moment, desired the same experience.
The scene is set in 1835 in a wealthy Boston home, in the front parlor traditionally reserved for adults entertaining their friends, and where children were not allowed. The doors had been kept closed all day, no eyes would pry upon the spruce tree top sitting upon the table, with toys and seven dozen small wax candles carefully placed upon its branches. The children, playing in an adjacent room, included young five-year old Charley and his close friends. Suddenly the double doors are swung open and all chattering hushed.
The author wrote “Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy.” The children soon learned the tree bore edibles, and “the babble began again.” The evening continued with games, dancing and steaming mulled wine for the adults. The young author concluded her account by predicting that the Christmas tree ritual would surely become an established American tradition.
My small gift to you, my beloved Unitarian Universalist friends, and welcome guests, is to share a bit of knowledge and perhaps a wee bit of pride. This grand symbol would likely not have become such a beloved tradition of our Christmas holiday if it were not for the 19th century Unitarians. For that young German immigrant was a Unitarian minister, Rev. Charles Fallon, and the young popular writer was British Unitarian Harriet Martineau. Adding to our connection to history, about the same time, the tradition of the Christmas tree was also written about by another popular Unitarian author, Catherine Sedgwick.
Martineau was correct about her prediction. Within a few years, this beloved tradition was accepted by the middle and upper classes, from the progressive Unitarians to the conservative Protestants. But why, you may ask, was the tradition offered and accepted particularly in light of their suspicions of all things pagan? Because, my dear friends, of their strong desire to save their children from the excesses of the public holiday festival and increasing commercialization. The tradition brought the holiday celebrations into the private home, away from the streets where winter boredom triggered alcohol infused parades. The focus on the tree included a protection of the children who were a new target of the commercial enterprises, and the secret preparations and subsequent revealing of the trees glory and splendor gave the parents total control over the gifts.
Unitarians being the socially minded people who care deeply about education, then and now, also had an alternative hope. Focusing on the children with an emotional holiday experience, would encourage parents to focus on their children throughout the year, for they had been traditionally relegated to the back of the house and minds of their parents. The Unitarians were keenly interested that the children’s minds be cultivated, and their souls strengthened with the spirit of God. The Christmas tree was brought into our homes to save our children.
Later tonight, in that moment, when our children’s chattering is hushed, their steps are stilled, and their eyes light up with the wonder of magic and beauty found in our holiday trees – and trees rooted in our forests – that is when we witness the holiness within their small bodies. Like a new born child in a manger, brought into this world by parent’s deepest longing, we find our own adult holiness being rekindled, and perhaps, if we’re paying attention, we too are brought into the fullness of enduring love for all life.
May we all be reminded of the holiness and God of all names found within our children, and within ourselves, on this sacred night, and all days into the new year.