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updated: 12/21/2013 6:53 PM

Christmas lore steeped with stories about the tree

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  • It's all in the tree. Maybe not "all," but the tree certainly has its place in Christmas lore and legend, according to the Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia.

    It's all in the tree. Maybe not "all," but the tree certainly has its place in Christmas lore and legend, according to the Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia.
    Courtesy of Dave Heun


It's all in the tree.

Maybe not "all," but the tree certainly has its place in Christmas lore and legend, according to the Rev. William Beckmann of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia.

Beckmann made his annual presentation on Christmas fact and fiction to members of the Tri-Cities Exchange Club last week.

He's been teaching his fellow club members interesting things about the holidays with his annual talk since the late 1980s, and I've made it a tradition of the past 10 years to share his insights with my readers.

Here's everything -- and then some -- we learned about Christmas trees:

Who was first?

Germany generally gets credit for introducing the Christmas tree, but based on holiday lore you could almost take your pick of the date when the Christmas tree made its debut.

The earliest mention of a tree is 1419, when the Freiburg Fraternity of Bakers' Apprentices saw a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread and tinsel in a hospital, Beckmann said.

However, Henry VIII set up a tree in England with gold, roses and pomegranates in the 1540s.

In 1561, it helped to have big feet in Strasburg, where cutting down trees had been banned for years. That year, a person was allowed to cut down one pine tree that would be eight shoe-lengths long, Beckmann said.

Monk has his say

Throughout history, people like to point to legendary starts of the Christmas tree to give the story some spark and tradition.

In England in 723, a Benedictine monk named Boniface saw people offering sacrifices "in front of a mighty oak dedicated to Thor," Beckmann said. The angry Boniface knocked the tree down with one swipe of an ax, leaving the locals shocked that he wasn't struck dead by lightning in the process. As such, Boniface claimed it a victory for Christianity -- and the tree found its place as a symbol in the process.


People who wanted to save the forests were against cutting down trees for Christmas, even as far back as the 1600s, Beckmann said.

"Even then, people got uptight about commercialization, and a preacher in 1647 in Strasburg Cathedral took pot shots at the tree, claiming it was receiving more attention than the word of God and holy rites," Beckmann said.

Wealthy families discovered the joy of a Christmas tree in the home in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Trees in the home began to compete with the Nativity scene as the most popular holiday decoration of the time.

Let's make money

In 1851, a farmer in the Catskills became the first to cut down trees and sell them in New York City. "It was the beginning of the Christmas tree business," Beckmann said. "He was the first to discover you could sell trees for a profit."

Presidential trees

Which president had the first indoor tree at the White House?

It's difficult to determine, but Beckmann said his research indicates that President Franklin Pierce had an indoor tree in 1853 or 1856, or it might have been President Benjamin Harrison in 1888 through 1891.

First Lady Lou Hoover began the tradition of decorating the White House tree.

Teddy Roosevelt kept to his staunch conservationist roots when he refused to have a Christmas tree in the White House in 1902, Beckmann said. But his sons went ahead and cut down a tree anyway, only to get a lecture from some forest rangers Roosevelt brought in to teach his boys a lesson about why people shouldn't cut down trees.

Currently, the official White House tree stands in the Blue Room, comes from Pennsylvania and is exactly 18 feet tall.

Must have ornaments

In what Beckmann calls "a nice legend," a European story centers on a poor woman who could not afford decorations for her tree. A spider moved into the tree, spun a web, and on Christmas morning the sunlight struck the cobwebs, turning them into a silver color.

When the woman awoke, she found her tree covered in this "silver."

Another good story centers on St. Nicholas and the creation of the Christmas stocking ornament. St. Nick came across a poor father with three daughters. The poor man wanted to sell his daughters into prostitution to get money for the family, but good old St. Nick threw a bag of gold through the man's window three nights in a row, with the gold bags landing in stockings hung by the chimney to dry.

Christians late to game

The first written evidence of an annual celebration on Dec. 25 doesn't appear until the fourth century. The Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the wise men, came along first in the eastern portion of the church.

The first written record that associates the birth of Jesus with Dec. 25 was found in a Roman document known as the Chronograph of 354, Beckmann said. It was odd to see, considering that making notes of a birth date wasn't common practice and the rest of this book had dates of death for emperors and martyrs.

"People didn't live long in those days, so the death date was much more important," Beckmann said. "No one celebrated birthdays, because they knew you may not make it very long."

Happy holidays!

This holiday season, like so many others, left me incredibly impressed with how many people and organizations show their generosity in helping those in need to have a decent holiday.

If we keep doing that in some fashion year-round, we can't go wrong.

To all of my readers and everyone else who calls the Tri-Cities area their home, have a safe and happy holiday.

Next week, we'll look at the various names, faces and places that made their way into "Talk of the Towns" during 2013.

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