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Witness the statuesque spruce: Brilliant with crystal balls and glittery lights, vainly crowding out a small floor space, its grainy trunk nestled in a sea of feathery cotton, and emitting its piney essence throughout the surroundings.

The celebrated Christmas tree! Childhood’s recollection of packages beckoning beneath its branches; today a symbol of yuletide throughout the civilized world.

As we sit, dazzled by its beauty, blissfully sharing gifts and sipping eggnog, do we consider how the evergreen icon of the season began?

Its history is uncertain and fragmented. The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (both pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice. Romans used fir trees to adorn their homes for the New Year. People in Northern Europe planted evergreens in boxes inside their houses in winter.   Two cities argue about the first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations: Tallinn in Estonia (1441) and Riga in Latvia (1510).

Vintage Christmas card with tree. Christmas card

There is a record of a small tree in Bremen, Germany, from 1570, with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers.” The first person to bring a Christmas tree into a house may have been the 16th century German preacher, Martin Luther, who supposedly nailed a small fir tree to the wall of his home and decorated it with candles and sweets as a way to celebrate Christmas.

There has been a long association of evergreens with life and renewal, especially during winter. For example, Hindus hang mango, coconuts or figs on their Christmas trees as symbols of fertility, to enhance good luck.

The significance of Christmas trees has evolved over time. Initially they were used as a symbol of Christianity and rebirth. Later, they became a way to celebrate the winter season, with gift giving and holiday decorations.

Today the evergreen continues to remain an indicator of the holiday season, bringing happiness to people of all ages and religions around the world.

Louise Whiteside, a long-time resident of D.C. and Maryland, now resides in the Colorado Rockies. She loves memoir writing, bargain hunting, cooking, country music, theater, and travel.

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