TANENBAUM [TAN-uhn-boum]: German word for fir tree; adopted to mean Christmas Tree


Living in Rhode Island, I’ve watched the debate (now somewhat tempered) over the past couple of years as to whether the decorated fir tree in the State House should be called a “Christmas Tree” or a “Holiday Tree.”   I tend to come down on the side of those (Governor Chafee especially) who prefer to see it as a secular tree symbolic of a generic holiday.  In a state which prides itself on freedom of religious expression, based upon the founding of the state by Roger Williams, who escaped from Puritan Massachusetts to create a colony where one’s religion (or lack thereof) is not demanded or defined by the government.

In any case, the tree is there.  It is illuminated by sparkling lights, and there are articles of beauty placed strategically throughout the branches.  I don’t think the tree cares what it is called.  For all intents and purposes, it is a symbol which commemorates centuries of tradition which includes very, very secular (even Pagan) traditions.  In some peoples’ lives, it also depicts a religious tradition which relates to Christianity.   But in others’ lives, it is a colorful ornament which signals a special time of the year in which we are called upon to think thoughts of joy, peace, and festivity.

The Germans, who seem to have been responsible for a great number of the traditions surrounding the cutting of a fir tree, bringing it into the household, and decorating it with clever items, took the practice from pagan practices which had more to do with the time of the year.  They also adopted it as a Christian symbol.   But they weren’t the only ones who engaged in this practice.  If you Google tanenbaum and read some of the items listed there, you will discover that the history of the Christmas/holiday, solstice tree is varied and interesting.  It may help you to defuse some of the protectiveness and bias which some associate with the custom.

Many of our friends have “modernized” the custom by purchasing artificial trees, some of which are very realistic and attractive.   Many of those friends are “snowbirds” who will leave for a warmer climate immediately after the gathering of family for whatever holiday they observe in December, and don’t want to be encumbered by the care and maintenance of a cut tree.   For others, the artificial tree is just a practical thing.   I remember the beginnings of the artificial tree tradition when shiny aluminum trees were constructed around a mop handle with holes drilled in it, into which branches which only barely resembled tree branches were inserted.   After being used they were disassembled, placed in a box and stored away in the attic until the next year.   A really “festive” aluminum tree was achieved by a spinning color wheel in front of a spotlight which changed the color of the tree every few seconds.   Not for me.

But annually we venture to a tree sale, pick out an attractive tree and spend a few hours putting lights and ornaments on the tree which remains in our home until the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, at which time it is stripped and taken to the curb for the trash collectors to cart it away.  When my wife worked at a zoo we sent the tree to the zoo as fodder for the elephants.  There is something of an ecological bent to our annual Christmas tree.  One year we even bought a live one with a ball of earth retaining its roots and replanted it after Epiphany on the lawn of our newly-constructed home.  I warn you that if you think about this, be aware that it’s very, very heavy, and the stats are not good on the lifespan of such trees.

Tanenbaums, whether they are religious symbols or secular items more related to the earth and its products, provide some beauty and fun for people…not just Christians.   The house takes on an aroma of the forest.   Creativity in the decorating of the tree is a welcome challenge.  And the relationship of the ornaments to specific periods of history of the family makes for poignant moments, even tearful ones.  Family traditions surrounding the tree have meaning…or may be just a tolerable period of time for some who regret the mess they make on household carpeting.

I wouldn’t do anything to define the tanenbaum in such a way as to restrict it from use by anyone who wants to enjoy one.  My Jewish friends have as many traditions surrounding their trees as do many Christians.   And people with no faith community at all stand back and admire their tree through the same eyes as does my family.   What a great interlude of custom in the midst of a season which can be dark and foreboding.


Photo Credit:  LiveloveDIY

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