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Once upon a time, in our communal memory, one tramped through the woods, cut a tree, then dragged it home through snow covered fields. Though the memory lives on, its reality hasn't existed for many years though you may possibly trek to a tree farm with children.
A decorated evergreen tree has become such a symbol of this holiday. The bells and balls and tinsel and Christmas lights. So beautiful and so cheerful. Did you ever wonder how it all got started?
It seems that in prehistoric times evergreens meant immortality. Deciduous plants lost their leaves and looked dead, but evergreens seemed to defy death. Biblical people gathered evergreens on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. They were symbols of life when the world was darkest.
Pagan Romans decorated their homes with them, and also drank a lot of wine to celebrate the solstice. Animalistic Teutonic tribes believed that spirits lived in big, old trees, so they were mystical and therefore worshipped. The church did not like these pagan customs.
Evergreen HOLLY was most prized by German and British tribes to ward off evil spirits and bad weather. Later, maidens kept it to protect their virtue. Imagine that. Plus the poisonous berries were used as medicine. MISTLETOE, a poisonous parasite of oak trees, was sacred to the Druids and so also a medicine. It is interesting that the active ingredient of most herbal remedies, even today, are actually poisons.
Then, in 1510 in Latvia (it is said) some merchants fancied up a tree with flowers. Soon the ideas of holiday tree decorations spread and candles and cookies were added. It was especially enjoyed in Germany.
However it took Queen Victoria to popularize it here. It seems that in 1848, The Illustrated London News printed a picture of the Queen, all her children and her beloved Prince Albert (who was German) in front of a decorated Christmas tree. Two years later, Godey's Lady's Book added what royalty did, and brought the idea here to America. So, viola, it became the rage.
WHEN BUYING A TREE: 1. First measure your ceiling height. Then measure the inside diameter of your tree stand. 2. To check the tree. Pull a branch to see if the needles fall off. Is it green or tan? Does it smell fresh. 3. Have a fresh saw cut made on the trunk. 4. At home, put it in warm water. Cold stops the sap flow. 5. Fire Hazards: Keep in water. No smoking. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. 6. After Christmas, the branches can be used to mulch perennials.
Ruth S. Foster is a landscape consultant and arborist. More gardening information can be found on her website, www.mothersgarden.net.
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