Jess Scragg explains how, originating in pagan religions and repurposed to celebrate Christianity, the Christmas tree has become a comforting image for many, becoming widespread with the Industrial Revolution and material accumulation. Mass production to fuel stimulated demand has led to ‘commodity cities’, which manufacture huge quantities of Christmas gifts.
Museum of the Anthropocene: The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree has become a comforting and familiar image for many of us, and is associated with happy memories of cosy winter evenings. But how did the tradition evolve, and what does it have to do with the Anthropocene?
The first Christmas celebration took place in 336AD in Rome, though the festival did not gain prominence until after 800AD. During the 4th century, the ‘Constantinian Shift’ resulted in paganism being prohibited in the Roman Empire.
Christianisation and persecution of pagans took place throughout Europe and pagan traditions, such as bringing the evergreen tree into the home to celebrate the winter solstice, were repurposed to celebrate Christianity.
In the early to mid-1800s, the use of evergreen trees to celebrate Christ spread from Germany, where it originated, throughout Europe and to the Americas, enabled by the migration of populations and the rise of a more interconnected world. This coincided with the Industrial Revolution; a time of unprecedented growth of economy and population. Large-scale production took off, as did the accumulation of belongings. However, while the Western world enjoyed a sustained rise in quality of living and wealth, countries under the control of the British Empire were exploited to fuel the growing demands of the capitalist economies.
The pagan practice of gift-giving was also rationalised as a Christian tradition to represent the gifts given to Jesus by the Wise Men. In the 1800s the practice evolved from decorating the tree with small gifts intended for children to larger gifts kept beneath the tree for the whole family. Yearly spend on Christmas gifts is now considered a key economic indicator by stockbrokers and many major retailers run Christmas advertising campaigns as they recognise the capital potential of the season. The impacts of mass production to fuel this artificially generated demand are felt unevenly globally, and it has led to the development of ‘commodity cities’ which exist to manufacture the huge quantities of items required for the holiday season — Christmas is now an entire ‘season’ due to the length of time required to purchase everything needed.
After World War II, the practice of using aluminium or PVC plastic trees became widespread due to the added convenience of not having to buy a new one every year. Huge emphasis was put on the benefits of convenience after WWII, which led to the growth of throwaway culture and associated environmental impacts.
There are many arguments about whether it is more environmentally friendly to use a real or artificial Christmas tree, and this debate parallels the question of what actions humans should take now we know we are creating mass changes to our environment. Do we try to reverse the impacts and behaviours so engrained in our society and return to ‘authentic nature’, or do we embrace emerging technologies and use them to create a ‘good Anthropocene’?
It is also worth noting that the tree itself doesn’t actually cause the problems associated with mass consumption, but it does enable consumerism by providing a means for the practice of gift-giving. This mirrors the role of the state in capitalist consumerism, as the lack of action from political bodies and the corporate elite is what is enabling disastrous environmental destruction, which is a key characteristic of the Anthropocene.
The Christmas Tree was contributed by Jess Scragg: “I am currently working in the Innovation Delivery team at a multi-disciplinary engineering firm, with my main focus being on accelerating our growth in the energy and sustainability sector. Taking part in the Museum of the Anthropocene helped me develop my creativity and ‘out of the box’ thinking, which are skills I now use every day in my role!”