Christmas Trees, Nativity Scenes and…Poop?

Most Western Christmas decorations are incomplete unless there is a Christmas tree and a nativity scene. Many people do not have any idea why we set up and decorate a tree or have nativity scenes in our houses or in our yards. In this post, I would like to briefly explain each of these Christmas traditions- where they started, how they developed and how these traditions help us celebrate Christmas (even through some of their oddity).

imagesThe Christmas Tree

The story of the Christmas tree has many possible places of beginning but most begin with St. Boniface who used the image of an evergreen tree to teach the principle of the Trinity. Before St. Boniface, however, evergreen trees were used as religious symbols in Egypt, Rome and Great Britain and this leads some to believe that the Christmas tree tradition evolved from pagan roots (pun intended). For these “pagan” cultures, the evergreen tree was a symbol of certain deities but also important reminder that life would return after the harshness of winter.

The modern Christmas tree can be traced to Germany. Germans brought the tradition to America around the time of the Revolutionary War. One source says that by 1900, one in five American homes contained a Christmas tree. By 1920, almost every American house contained a Christmas tree. Lights were added to represent the birth of Jesus. Ornaments began as edible reminders of times of plenty that came before and will return after winter.

The Christmas tree is also a reminder that the Christ born at Christmas would die on a tree on Good Friday.

Today, Christmas trees represent a $1 billion industry and that does not include the sales of artificial trees.  The most iconic Christmas tree in the world is probably the Christmas tree erected yearly at Rockefeller Center in NYC. Rockefeller Center Christmas TreeThe total cost of the tree is estimated to be over $73,000. However, that’s not the most expensive Christmas tree- in fact it’s not even close.

The most expensive Christmas tree ever created was displayed in The Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. The tree stood 40 feet tall and was decorated with diamonds, pearls, emeralds and other jewels. The total value of the tree was estimated at $11.4 million. The Emirates Palace Hotel Christmas Tree

We’ve come a long way from the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.


The Nativity Scene


The first nativity scene can be traced to St. Francis of Assisi and the year 1223. St. Francis wanted the people to see a picture of what they heard in Christmas Mass. St. Francis’ nativity scene included a wax baby Jesus, actors playing Mary and Joseph, and local shepherds who watch over live sheep. There was also a live donkey and a live ox and many modern nativity sets still contain these two animals in their nativity scenes.

Over the next two hundred years, more churches incorporated nativity scenes into their Christmas worship. Some copied St. Francis’ “live nativity,” while others built static scenes. Artisans also began crafting smaller versions of nativities for the homes of wealthy clients. These early nativities were made from clay, ceramics, wood and wax- essentially the same materials used today.

Many modern nativity scenes typically contain the same characters as the first nativity: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, an angel, a shepherd or two with sheep, three Magi, a donkey and an ox. There are other traditions that accompany nativities. One tradition says that baby Jesus should not be placed into the manger until Christmas morning. Another says that the Magi should move gradually closer to the nativity up to the Feast of Epiphany.

The strangest tradition I have run across is the traditional placing of the caganer in the nativity scene in southern France and Spain. images-1The caganer is a figurine that is in the act of defecating; that’s right- he’s pooping. The tradition began in the late 17th or early 18th century and perhaps began as a bringer of fertility and good luck. This figure is usually hidden somewhere within the nativity scene and a game is often played with children to find the caganer. An interesting BBC article on the caganer can be found here:


I bet you never thought about a pooping man in your nativity scene.

This Christmas, as you look at your Christmas tree and nativity scene I hope you’ll know a little more about how we gained these traditions. And I hope you consider adding a caganer to this year’s nativity scene- all in the name of tradition of course.

Sources in this post:

© Ryan Vanderland 2012

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