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A Timeless Tradition
December 1, 2004, by Bill Cawthon
It's definitely the Yuletide season. In fact, though Advent officially began last Sunday, today is the day to open that first door on your Herpa Advent Calendar. Today is also the day Herpa's first holiday mini-scene is scheduled to be available at eXtra Shops in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, though not North America [more on this later].
In the United States, Thanksgiving is over, so it's time for millions to unearth the decorations, hit the malls, watch "It's A Wonderful Life" and start looking for that perfect Christmas tree.
The Christmas tree is one of the oldest of modern holiday symbols. In fact, the association of various evergreens and this time of year goes back thousands of years. In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is at its lowest point in the sky, and the night is the longest on the Winter Solstice, which occurs around the twenty-first of December. After the Solstice, the days begin to get longer and the sun rises higher in the daytime sky. To a number of ancient cultures, the Solstice symbolized rebirth and those plants that remained green as others died or lost their foliage were thought to be magical and offer the hope of new life in the coming spring. From the ancient Egyptians to the mystic Druids, palm leaves, date leaves, holly, ivy and various coniferous trees were revered and incorporated into rituals celebrated in late December.
St. Boniface is often credited with originating the custom of the Christmas tree. St. Boniface was an English monk and missionary from Devonshire who was born in 680 A.D. In the early 700s, he brought Christianity to the people in the Thuringia area of Germany. An old legend relates that he was speaking about the birth of Christ to a group of Druids near the town of Geismar. To persuade his audience their sacred oak tree was not magical, he chopped one down. Where the tree fell, every shrub was crushed, except for a fir sapling. St. Boniface told the crowd the survival of the small tree was a miracle, and proclaimed the fir to be the tree of the Christ child. According to some sources, after their conversion to Christianity, the Germans happily switched their allegiance from the oak to the fir and began to celebrate Christmas with the planting of fir saplings. By the late Middle Ages, Christians in Germany and Scandinavia would bring evergreens into their homes or place them outside the front door.
The earliest record of a decorated Christmas tree was at Riga in Latvia. However, the custom as we know it comes almost entirely from Germany. By the sixteenth century, Germans were decorating their trees with paper roses and sweets. Vendors at Christmas markets were offering baked goods and other items for ornaments.
Martin Luther is said to have originated the custom of adding lights to the tree. Walking in a forest on a winter evening, he was captivated by the many stars in the sky. When he got home, he set up an evergreen in the main room and attached candles to the branches to share the image with his family. Over time, the illuminated tree came to symbolize the stars that shone over Bethlehem.
While the Christmas tree was firmly established as a German tradition by the eighteenth century, it wasn't until a hundred years later the custom was adopted by the English-speaking world.
The Christmas tree had actually come to Great Britain with the Georgian Kings in 1714, but it met with limited success. The English were not fond of their German monarchs and so it wasn't until 1846, after the end of the Hanoverian reign, when a magazine illustration depicted Queen Victoria enjoying a tree with her family, that the English embraced the Yuletide evergreen.
The tree was a gift from Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. Though Albert was German, the son of the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, he was enormously popular and a trendsetter in English society. He was accustomed to having a decorated tree at Christmastime and asked Victoria to adopt the custom when they were married. The royal tree of 1846 was likely very similar to the trees we enjoy today, tall and lavishly decorated with blown-glass ornaments and tinsel, which was invented in Germany around 1610.
Christmas Trees were introduced in the United States by the German community in Pennsylvania in the eighteen century, but the custom did not hold much appeal for the broader American population, which was more restrained in its observance of Christmas. Actually, Christmas as we know it today is largely a result of the adoption of German customs and was not widely celebrated in early America, which was heavily influenced by the religious fundamentalists who settled in New England and elsewhere. The early Puritans felt the European customs were sacrilegious and William Bradford, the second governor of the Pilgrims, crusaded against what he called "pagan mockery." Celebrations were actually outlawed in Massachusetts in 1659 and as late as 1851, an Ohio minister was almost dismissed when he displayed a Christmas tree in his church.
Another strike against the Christmas tree was its identification with the Hessian mercenary soldiers who brought their holiday customs with them when they were hired by the British in the Revolutionary War.
Over time, thousands of new German and Irish immigrants overcame the legacy of the Puritans and Christmas trees started to became more common in American homes. In 1856, Massachusetts became the last state to recognize December 25 as a legal holiday, even though Boston schools continued to hold classes on that day until 1870.
A few years earlier, Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth President of the United States, became the first to have a Christmas tree in the White House.
Most early American Christmas trees had homemade ornaments and women and children often held Christmas Fairs where the decorations were produced. It wasn't until 1890, when F.W. Woolworth brought German glass ornaments to the U.S., that American trees began to resemble their European counterparts.
At the turn of the century, Christmas trees were part of the holiday tradition in only about 20% of American homes. By 1920, they were just about everywhere.
Although the earliest commercial sale of Christmas trees is said to have taken place in 1851, when Mark Carr, a farmer from the Catskills brought a shipment of trees to New York City, true commercial Christmas tree farms were a product of the Great Depression. Faced with a supply of evergreens they could no longer sell to paper millionaires and corporations which had gone bust, nurserymen began selling them as Christmas trees.
Today, the best-selling species of real Christmas tree are Scotch pine and Douglas fir, which make up about three-quarters of all cut and live Christmas trees sold in the United States. Other favorites are Fraser fir, noble fir, white pine, balsam fir and white spruce. But the big winner is the artificial tree, which accounted for 73% of all Christmas tree sales in 2003, a big leap from the early 1990s, when the market split 50-50 between sales of real and artificial trees. The National Christmas Tree Association has embarked on a campaign to try to regain more market share for the real thing, but it is likely to be a difficult fight. Not only must the growers deal with changing tastes, there are also concerns about the fire hazards presented by a real tree. These concerns have lead to the passage of laws restricting the use of real trees in multi-family dwellings and the outright banning of real trees by some institutions.
Whichever type of tree you prefer, please follow all the recommended safety practices; don't let a real tree get too dry, make sure an artificial tree is made of flame-resistant materials and don't overload electrical circuits with too many lights and gadgets.
In the beginning of this column, I mentioned Herpa's first-ever holiday mini-scene. Herpa has created a mini-diorama with a BMW 6-series convertible and a Preiser figure in a small presentation case. The idea is similar (I won't say copied from) to the series of small holiday scenes Busch has produced for eight years and which have become sufficiently popular with collectors that all previous editions are sold out. And I am sure it's a coincidence that this year's Christmas scene from Busch, which was announced last February at the International Toy Fair in Nürnberg, features a lightly clad female figure and so does Herpa's, which was announced last month. However, I would point out to the folks in Dietenhofen one major difference: you can get the Busch mini-scene in North America. Perhaps it's about time to consider adding Promotex Online to the network of Herpa eXtra retailers.
I really like the 2004 Herpa Christmas truck and I bought one for my collection, but my favorite holiday-themed model this year is the Busch Dodge Power Wagon stake bed truck decorated for "S. Claus Tree Farm." It even has a small bottle-brush Christmas tree in the back.
No matter how you celebrate, I hope your holidays will be wonderful and safe. And don't forget to share the season with others. Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army are among the many great organizations helping those less fortunate to have some holiday cheer, as are your local food banks and churches.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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