With December in full swing, how can we make the holidays something more than cutting out snowmen with our students?
I took a plunge into Wikipedia’s articles about the holidays, and ended up reading page after page about Christmas trees.
This semi-silly topic has countless (ahem) branches of study, and invites analyzing change over time, researching historically ambiguous events, and using multiple points of view.
Naturally, the origin of a topic is a great place to start, and the Christmas tree has quite a twisty, knotted history.
Some trace the roots of the tree-decorating tradition back to ancient winter celebrations. However, the use of decorated trees as a Christmas-specific decoration is surprisingly new, appearing in the last 500 years or so.
Decorated Christmas trees seem to have popped up in parts of Germany (now France) in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Originally decorations were candies and other food items. Trees were found in churches and guildhalls rather than homes.
- Trace the spread of the tree tradition across the world from Germany.
- Examine the various points of view about the beginning of the Christmas tree.
- Compare the use of Christmas trees to the use of trees in ancient festivals.
Tree decorations have also undergone interesting changes. Tinsel appears to be nearly as old as Christmas trees themselves, and has been made of silver until quite recently.
Lights on trees were not used until the 17th century, naturally as candles first.
- Examine the change over time of decorations, from candies to today’s ornaments.
- Analyze the evolution of Christmas lights to the modern, eco-friendly types.
- Explore the origins of tinsel and how it has changed over time.
The twists of Christmas’ history makes it easy to fall for myths. Here’s a beautiful investigation into the German Christmas Pickle’s origin.
More than a few people have helped spread the popularity of decorated Christmas trees. Have your students look into:
- Queen Victoria and Price Albert’s tree in 1846 England.
- Hessian troops influence in the American War for Independence.
- Mark Carr, possibly the first Christmas tree-lot operator.
- American Presidents Franklin Pierce and Calvin Coolidge both had significant roles in popularizing the tree here in the states.
- Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Fir Tree after learning of Christmas trees.
- Legends include Martin Luther as an early tree decorator.
Do your students know about these famous trees:
- Charlie Brown‘s christmas tree
- The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
- The White House Christmas tree
- Macy’s Great Tree
Which Tree To Pick
Ask your students what type of tree is most commonly used for Christmas trees. Consider the benefits and drawbacks of each type of tree.
Artificial vs The Real Deal
Invite research into artificial trees, perhaps by hooking them with Germany’s green goose-feathered faux trees of the 19th century.
Ask students why people pick artificial trees. Analyze based on motivations of convenience, cost, and environmental impact.
Debate the best material for an artificial tree. Wikipedia lists common materials such as:
- brush bristles
- plastic (especially PVC)
Much of the information in this article came from the following sources:
- The University of Illinois
- Christmas Archives
- Wikipedia’s Christmas tree article
- Wikipedia on artificial trees
Let me know if you come up with any great holiday related studies for your students!
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