Christmas: How it came to be celebrated at the world’s most important addresses

How a theologian’s walk through a forest on a crisp evening changed the way we perceive Christmas.

Updated: Dec 26, 2016, 10:32 AM IST

The warm feeling associated with Christmas on a chilly night is hugely due to the variegated elements yoked with it. The Christmas tree, fairy lights, colourful presents, season greeting cards and Santa Claus have charmed the hearts of millions over the years.

Surprisingly though, these symbols of Xmas, were not celebrated at the birth of Jesus Christ, but have been sculpted into the current form only for the past 200 years or so.

Europe has, perhaps, had the most traditional Yuletide, which married a lot of customs of the original pagans. Bonfires, customary singing and dancing which later turned into traditional carols – all these emerged as altruistic versions of the folk past.

However, their spread was assisted to no trifling extent by the reigning kings and queens.

In England, it is popularly believed that in the 1840s Queen Victoria played a colossal role in bringing the Christmas spirit to the Windsor Palace, mainly due to the influence of her German consort Prince Albert. Christmas shrubberies, mistletoe and the famous Christmas tree were already in great vogue on the Continent, particularly Germany, however the island country was yet to see it as a well-established tradition.

So, the instalment of a tree at the Queen’s Lodge at Windsor by Victoria and Albert fired the imagination of the local populace and was replicated across all well-to-do families, and soon became a rage.

Nevertheless, the credit goes not to Queen Victoria alone. Earlier, her German mother of Victoria, Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, was the first to introduce England to the holy timber in 1800.

Keen to give the children of her circle in court a Christmas treat, she, along with her ladies-in-waiting, had set up a yew bough in one of the main entertainment rooms and decorated it with candles, toys, glass figurines and sweets, creating a sort of wonderland around the tree for the party.

Across the Atlantic, before the 19th century, Christmas was more of a hallowed festival observed with piety by White House residents without much fanfare. At best, the President would say prayers and meet citizens before having a private dinner with his family.

It is President Benjamin Harrison who holds the distinction of hosting the first Christmas tree in the White House in 1889. This coincided closely with the growing popularity of Washington Irving’s depiction of Santa Claus and general festivities. Apparently, the New York Times reported, with much galore, the marvellous presents and festive log placed in the first residence of America.

Five years later, during the tenure of President Grover Cleveland, the White House Christmas tree was decorated with electric lights for the first time. Again, NYT reported how the tree placed in library was aglow with varicoloured electric lamps.

Since then, Christmas tree has been a firm part of celebrations by US Presidents. The only exception to the rule was the regime of President Theodore Roosevelt, who refused to have a Christmas tree in the White House for the fear of popularising a custom that could lead to deforestation.

Amongst these illustrious residences, one of the most important addresses related with Christmas was the humble dwelling of the 16th century German Protestant reformer Martin Luther.

One fine evening, as the theologian rambled back home through a forested area, humming a sermon in his mind, he was awestruck by the sight of the beautiful and deep evening sky. He felt that hundreds of fir trees around him were lit up by the millions of sparkling stars spread across the clear firmament, creating an atmosphere of sublime purity.

So moved was the preacher that he rushed home and tried to re-create the scene near his fireplace. He placed on the branches of his festive lumber, several candles; and thus began the enchanting tradition of beautifully lit Christmas trees.

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