Pickles and sun gods?

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

For Germanic cultures having a Christmas tree was all about finding the pickle.


The pickle stood out from the rest of the tree’s ornamentations, often tending to be fruit, and the lucky person who found the briny treat in amongst the evergreen branches got an extra present. Today, decorators can find small, bumpy glass pickle ornaments in most Christmas shops, so they don’t have to hang a dill or a gerkin on their own tree.

Pickles aside, the history of the Christmas tree is somewhat vague. Although creation of a tree symbolizing happiness is mentioned in the Bible, it appears as though the Christmas tree is a combination of Norse, Catholic and Lutheran customs.

While the Norse had a custom of decorating trees, it was the Catholics who, with an affinity for processions and plays to illustrate Christian themes, decorated trees with fruit to represent a Paradise tree in the story of Adam and Eve, said Laura Cruz, assistant professor of history at Western Carolina University.

Meanwhile, another story goes that theologian and church reformer Martin Luther was out one starry night and was moved by the natural beauty of a tree. He tried to tell his family about what he had seen, but unable to express it in words, he simply went out and cut down a tree and decorated it with lights to illustrate. However, the first documented “Christmas” tree isn’t until the 1600s, almost 60 years after Luther’s death.

The custom of gift giving on the day heralded as the birth of Christ is relatively new, historically speaking. While Dec. 25 is now recognized as Christmas Day, it began as a pagan Roman holiday — Natalis Solis Invincti, or “Birth of the Invincible Sun God,” Mithras. Christianity was a new concept and church leaders, eager to bolster their own religion, essentially co-opted the holiday and dubbed it the day of the birth of Christ.

Whether Dec. 25 actually is the day of the birth of Christ is debatable — Saint Luke tells of shepherds watching their flock, which only occurred during lambing time, which was in the spring.

Under Roman rule the Christian faith was subject to persecution. After Emperor Galerius’ death, his co-ruler Licinius tolerated Christians allowing the faith to grow. During this period Saint Nicholas, born in what is modern day Turkey, rose to become bishop of Myra.

The historical figure is the inspiration for Santa Claus, as the Saint is known as a bringer of gifts. The tradition again intersects with the Germanic culture and the god Wodan, said to ride the night sky. In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas — or as the Dutch called him Sinterklass — rode a horse over the rooftops.

The celebration of Saint Nicholas was held on the evening of Dec. 5 to the day of Dec. 6, the day of his death. For centuries the two celebrations, Dec. 25 and Dec. 5, existed independently. It was the Americans who declared in June of 1870 that Christmas would be a single day.

At the time, Christmas trees were a fairly recent addition to America, most likely brought over by German immigrants around the 1820s. The practice was to go out and harvest a tree and take it home. However, one industrious fellow in New York cut down several to take into town and sell. Amazed a how quickly the trees sold, he began what is known as the first commercial Christmas tree operation in 1850.

A picture sent from England of Queen Victoria with a Christmas tree truly launched the custom into American homes.

“It’s almost like a Charlie Brown tree,” said Greg McLamb, visiting assistant professor of history at WCU.

Trees then were lit with candles, and there was even a formula for determining the appropriate amount of lights for a tree — height times width times three.

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