Subtopic: The Christmas Tree
Grade Level: 4th-5th
Author: Rayn Blair
The origin of the first Christmas tree dates back to the Middle Ages in Western Germany. The people during this time period participated in and watched dramatic plays called miracle and mystery plays. These plays were performed to teach the common people about religious truths that were contained in the bible. There were no printed books available, and pictures were scarce during this period of time. "As laymen joined with the clergy, the individual plays were arranged in a lengthy series or cycle throughout the church year" (Foley, pg. 39). In this way, peasants were taught about the Old and New Testaments of the bible.
During the Christmas season, the Paradise play was presented. This play depicted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. On stage was an evergreen tree, covered in apples, which showed Adam and Eve's sin and later banishment from the garden. The tree received particular attention because it was the only prop on the stage. This symbol remained firmly planted in the minds of spectators and actors. Later, after the plays "ceased to be performed in Germany" ( Foley, pg. 41), people began putting their own trees in their homes.
This early Paradise tree had a lot of value to the Germans. By having the tree in their home they were able to teach their children the story of Adam and Eve. They taught this story through symbols. The evergreen tree symbolized immortality because it stays green all year. The apples on the Paradise tree symbolized Adam's sin. Round wafers and cookies were also added as decorations. They represented the fruits of redemption.
Candles were also important symbols to the Germans. The candle was their main source of light, and it represented Christ being the Light of the World. The candles were placed on a wooden pyramid structure with shelves called the lightstock or Christmas pyramid. This pyramid stood next to the Paradise tree. This candle holder was also decorated with tinsel, paper or cloth roses, and a star was usually placed on top.
After some years the two were combined. The Christmas tree we know today is a combination of the Paradise tree and the Christmas pyramid.
From Germany, the idea of a Christmas tree spread. As Germans left the Rhineland to settle in other places, they took their proud custom with them. In England, German settlers had brought the idea of a Christmas tree over. It wasn't until several decades later that it was formally introduced by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, a German.
At first the Christmas tree was found only in the homes of the upper-class English. The idea soon gained in popularity and became an English sensation. It became a Victorian symbol "laden with ornaments and surrounded with gifts" (Foley, pg. 65).
Hessian (German) mercenaries fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War, most likely introduced the concept of a Christmas tree to America. Tradition says that these soldiers set up Christmas trees for the colonial children. They did this so they would be able to cherish their homeland customs, since some of them had been away from home for three Christmases. No documentary evidence has been found to support this tradition, however, only stories.
Documented evidence of the Christmas tree began showing up in the early 1800's and continued to grow steadily. Most of the information is from the personal accounts of German settlers. The earliest illustration of a Christmas tree in America was from a book entitled The Stranger's Gift by Herman Bodum, printed in 1836. The Christmas tree began to spread rapidly throughout America. By the year 1850, the Christmas tree had become the fashionable thing for the holiday season.
Today most Christians celebrating Christmas have a Christmas tree in their home during the holiday season. They have their own special traditions involving the cutting and decorating of the tree. Many people view the Christmas tree as the most glorious and best-loved symbol of the Christmas season.
Bodum, Herman (1836). The Stranger's Gift. Boston.
Foley, Daniel J. (1960). The Christmas Tree. Philadelphia: Chilton Company.
Pauli, Hertha (1944). The Story of the Christmas Tree. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Time Allotment: Approximately 4 to 5 class periods plus any homework.
A. Brainstorm. Ask students to think about some of the possible symbols for Christmas and the Christmas tree. Write these on the board.
B. Think-Pair-Share. Have students think about Christmas trees they have seen or have helped decorate. Have them think specifically about the ways in which the trees were decorated (tinsel, garland, ornaments, lights). Have students pair up and share their ideas with a partner. Call on some of the students to share with the entire class. After the students have been given the background information on the Christmas tree, have them write down some similarities and differences between the first tree and the trees of today on a piece of paper.
C. Mini-lecture. Explain to students that the Christmas tree is a symbol for the Christian holiday of Christmas. The Christmas tree we know today came from two German traditions: the Paradise tree, and the lightstock (Christmas pyramid). Show the students where Germany and the Rhine River are on the world map or globe. Share with the students the information of the Paradise tree and the Christmas pyramid. Talk with students about the symbolism of the evergreen, apples, wafers, and candles. Explain that the German custom was spread throughout Europe, England, and America by German settlers. Check for understanding by asking questions about the information presented. Have students draw what they think the Paradise tree and pyramid looked like standing next to each other.
D. Jigsaw. (This can take the place of the Mini-lecture.) Divide students into groups of four. One person in each group will be given information on the Paradise tree, the Christmas pyramid, the spread to England, or growth in America. Students will read their assigned material and then meet in "expert" groups to discuss their topic. Original groups will meet together again, and each member will share their information. Students will be responsible for reading and teaching the information of their own topic. The class will be given a quiz made up of questions from the readings. A discussion will be held after so that students are able to process the experience.
E. Four Corners. Talk to the class about the two kinds of trees: deciduous and coniferous. Explain to the students that coniferous trees are evergreen trees. Evergreen trees stay green all year long. Put the students into four groups. Send the groups to four corners or stations set up in the room. At each station have a different type of evergreen sample, such as a branch. There should also be a large piece of paper at the station. Give the groups different colors of markers and send them to a corner. Have the students write down observations of the evergreen. Only allow a short amount of time then tell the students to switch stations. Have each group go to all of the stations. After each group has been to every corner, bring the class back to their seats. Have one person from each group stay at the last corner and read what was on the lists. Talk about the answers and different characteristics of the evergreens.
F. Hands-on. Talk to the students about the wafers that were hung on the Paradise tree. These wafers were later replaced by cookies. These wafers and cookies represented the "fruits of redemption." Ask the students to describe some ornaments they have seen in stores or on Christmas trees. Tell the students that the ornaments which hang on trees today came from the wafers and apples that were on the Paradise tree. The cookies were made out of white dough, and formed into shapes of angels, flowers, bells, stars, and hearts. Have the students mix the ingredients together. Then shape them into one of the previous shapes, or let students create their own shape. Cook the cookies in the lunchroom kitchen.
G. Mapping Skills (Utah). Talk with students about the tree that was selected from the Manti-La Sal National Forest to be the U.S. Capitol Holiday Tree for 1996. The tree that was selected to be the "people's tree" was a 70-foot Engleman spruce. The National Holiday Tree shows Utah's abundant natural resources, and will serve as a symbol of hope, prosperity, and good will for people of all beliefs throughout the holiday season. Give students information on the cities and states that the tree wil take to the Capitol in Washington D.C. Have students mark the destinations on a worksheet map of the United States. Draw lines in between the markers to show the route the tree takes.
H. Music. Have the students sit in a group. Remind the students that the Christmas tree originated in Germany. Have the words of the traditional carol "O Christmas Tree" where the students can see them. Have the students sing the song. Tell the students that the German version is called "O Tannenbaum."
I. Open Discussion. When the previous activities have been finished, have the students respond to the following question. "What do you know about the Christmas tree and its symbols?"
Participation in the brainstorming activity will be assessed.
Drawings of Christmas tree and Christmas pyramid will be assessed.
Participation and preparedness during jigsaw will be assessed.
Quizzes on the jigsaw information will be assessed.
Paper listing similarities and differences of early tree and modern Christmas trees will be assessed.
Participation in making a cookie ornament will be assessed.
Wall lists of evergreen characteristics will be assessed.
Participation in four corners activity will be assessed.
Maps of the Holiday Tree journey will be assessed.
Participation of music activity will be assessed.
Answers to the discussion questions will be assessed.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
How lovely are your branches. Happiness we greet you.
In summer sun, in winter snow, When decked with candles once a year
A dress of green you always show, You fill our hearts with Yuletide cheer,
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches. With happiness we greet you.
We will be learning about and discussing holiday symbols during the upcoming week. I will be teaching lessons on evergreen trees, and the history of the Christmas tree. We will be working cooperatively and individually on different activities. Some of these activities include making sugar cookies, analyzing evergreen characteristics, and using mapping skills. Art, history, music, science, and social studies are some of the areas which will be integrated through these activities. If you have any questions or concerns please contact me.
Nov. 15 Manti-La Sal National Forest Nov. 22 Sioux Falls, SD
Nov. 1 Pleasant Grove, UT Nov. 23 South Bend, IN
Nov. 18 Brigham City, UT Nov. 25 Pittsburgh, PA
Nov. 19 Salt Lake City, UT Nov. 26 Allentown, PA
Nov. 20 Cheyenne, WY Nov. 29 Hagerstown, MD
Nov. 21 Spearfish, SD Dec. 1 Washington, D.C.
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