During this holiday season of giving, many of us put up a Christmas tree. We decorate it with ornaments and place gifts for our loved ones underneath. What is the origin and evolution of this long tradition?
A Transcendent SymbolEvergreen trees—the type often used for Christmas trees—have been used symbolically all throughout the world. For instance, ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Hebrew cultures associated evergreen trees with eternal life.
Before the 16th century, early Christianity appropriated these customs and originally used Christmas trees to represent the Garden of Eden and to scare off the devil for the new year. Apples, wafers, and candles were added to the tree to represent, respectively, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve, the body of Christ, and the light of Christ.
After the 16th century, the Christmas tree became a deep cultural tradition in Lutheran Germany before being adopted in England during the early 19th century. It was first documented in America in the 1830s by German settlers. By the late 1800s, Edward Hibberd Johnson, a business associate of Thomas Edison, was the first to put lights on a Christmas tree, and the modern Christmas tree was born.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque CrècheRecently, I was able to see The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche,” on view until Jan. 8, 2023. Positioned in the Museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall, the 20-foot tree provides a home for the many angels and cherubs that hover over a Nativity scene.
The crèche figurines that depict the Nativity scene are from the second half of the 18th century and were provided by the donor Loretta Hines Howard. The figurines are posable figurines are between 12 and 15 inches tall and are composed of wood and terracotta. Some of these are believed to be from the workshop of the Italian master Giuseppe Sanmartino.
The angels and cherubs float majestically above the Nativity scene, where many figurines representing all nationalities come to witness the birth of Christ. Museum-goers can walk 360 degrees around the whole tree while listening to choral music that sets the mood for the Christmas season.
While I walked around the whole museum, it was the “Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche” that seemed to draw the most people. And they stood, looked, and reflected for the longest amount of time.
Reflecting on the Symbolism of Long TraditionsWhen traditions are centuries-old like this, we can sometimes lose track of the deeper meanings associated with them. This rich history of the Christmas tree can give us pause. We can stop and reflect on what it represents for us now.
Do we return to considering it a symbol of a paradise without sin? Or maybe—as an emblem of Christian virtue—we reflect on its use to ward off the devil, demons, or bad luck at the beginning of the new year? Or maybe its presence can help us reflect on eternity or heavenly beings who watch over us from above? Maybe it’s simply a symbol of the togetherness and hospitality shown to family and friends during the season of giving.
Whatever we may decide for ourselves, may we continue to associate a positive and righteous meaning with this long cultural tradition.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).