"In a deciduous world, the evergreen tree demonstrates permanence. To a primitive mind its summer looking leaf in winter would have suggested strange powers, as if it contained the sun within itself. Of all the evergreens, certain species such as holly and ivy and mistletoe bear recognizable fruit only in winter, a triumph of fertility over the elements. Small wonder that these should be brought into the winter house as symbolic magic of hope for a fruitful year to come."
So begins the sixth chapter of William Sansom's “A Book of Christmas.”
According to Sansom, the first documented notice of decorated trees inside the home occurred in Strasbourg, France, in 1605. Before that, it was common custom to bring into the house small potted cherry or hawthorn trees, or branches therefrom, so that they might bud at Christmas.
Centuries earlier there was the old Roman custom of decking the house with branches for the Kalendae, or New Year. And stretching back into prehistory is the ancient recognition of the sun's rebirth, in late December, as one of the vital religious times of the year.
Trees - or boughs, or budding branches - are the natural earthly symbol for this celestial event, since it is through them, via photosynthesis, that sunlight is transformed into food and fuel and materials for shelter.
For eons, mankind has instinctively sought respite from the gloom of winter via a festival of light and hope. Recognizing this, the church of Rome moved to establish the festival as Christian (though not until the middle of the fourth century), and now we celebrate the birth of the Son together with the rebirth of the sun - and light and hope lie at the very center of our celebrations.
We burn fires in our fireplaces, place candles on our tables and adorn our trees with strings of lights. Each flame, each ray of light, casts back the darkness and reminds us of the brighter possibilities of life. As reinforcement of this hope, our forebears festooned their Christmas trees with sweetmeats and popcorn and other edibles, which in our time have given way to various ornaments. (And which, for children especially, is something of a loss; in the days of edible ornamentation, kids got to eat the goodies after Twelfth Night, when the tree was taken down.)
Each year we go in search of a tree with which to celebrate the season of hope and rebirth. We go into the spruce swamp or out to the cut-your-own plantation, drive to the neighborhood Christmas tree lot or off to a store for a fold-it-and-store-it model.
We may go grumbling. But we come back transformed, gladder of heart and somehow caught up once again in the ancient excitement, a part of us filled with the magic that lies ahead.