Christmas trees – and other evergreens – stand test of time

Published 5:12 pm Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Evergreen. That was the point.

Long before Christianity, people of various cultures found encouragement and even religious significance in trees that remained green all year, through even during the dark of winter.

Every year, the days had a nasty habit of getting shorter, and who knew whether that trend would continue until there was nothing left but darkness. About the only things that escaped the wrath of winter, it seemed, were the evergreen trees that grew in most all countries.

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If the gods, or nature, or whatever, felt kindly disposed toward these evergreens, it might be assumed they possessed some special power. Why not bring some evergreen boughs into the house as a symbol — perhaps a hope — that winter would eventually end. Thus began the tradition and, sure enough, every year, it worked.

When Christian missionaries carried the message of a risen Christ into non-Christian lands, they wisely accepted some local customs that seemed to do no harm to their faith. Evergreen boughs were among them and, eventually, evergreen trees, brought into the house near the time of what came to be celebrated as Christmas.

The custom was particularly strong in Germany and Martin Luther is widely viewed as having made it acceptable to German Lutherans by personally bringing a tree into his home at Christmas and even lighting it with candles.

Americans resisted Christmas trees when they were first brought to this country from northern Europe. The Puritan strain of our faith had a tough time with physical symbolism, and the impact of Cromwellian stuffiness put a damper on many things here and in England for decades.

But the Christmas tree persisted and once Americans adopt a custom, we generally do so enthusiastically. And thus it was with the Christmas tree. We also love things English, even though we had expended a great deal of effort shedding them back in 1776. So, when Queen Victoria made a spectacle of the Christmas tree, that’s all it took. We went wild over it.

The connection between evergreens and Christmas goes well beyond trees, of course. Holly is a favorite natural decoration and we have attached Christian symbolism to it that goes even beyond that associated with trees. The thorny holly leaf symbolizes the crown of thorns worn by Christ and the red berries his blood.

Many years ago, we Virginians also loved to collect running cedar as a decoration. It’s a native plant in the commonwealth and it’s evergreen. We draped it on mantels, hung it over entry doors and laced it amid table decorations.

I have long since stopped trying to find or collect it. While not officially protected, it is increasingly rare, thanks to the draining and development of moist woodlands. In addition, running cedar, which is exceptionally beautiful in its natural habitat, quickly dries out when brought indoors. It becomes brittle and quite flammable. For all those reasons, the Virginia Native Plant Society strongly recommends against harvesting it.

It can be debated from now until the cows come back to Pierceville whether it is more damaging to cut down a tree and bring it indoors or buy a plastic one and thus contribute to hydrocarbon pollution. There are also proponents of “live” Christmas trees that are later transplanted. I’ve never thought that was a particularly productive exercise, given that the longer the tree is indoors, the less its chance of surviving.

To each his own. I certainly don’t have any answers to such complex questions. But I do love the smell of evergreens in the living room. Talk about connecting with your roots. The love of evergreen runs all the way back into antiquity.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is