The Westerly Yacht Owners Association has a popular meeting at East Cowes Marina on the first Saturday of December. I am reliably informed that these frostbite rallies have been well attended for the past 22 years with the crews of 20 or more yachts coming together for the festivities. There’s a judging of Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, resulting in rewards for those who have arranged the most attractive and creative displays.
This is far removed from years gone by when a few hardy yachtsmen extended the sailing season into the month of December. Such stalwarts may have hoisted an undecorated fir tree to the top of their yacht’s mast as a sign they were aboard celebrating Christmas; but where and when did the tradition come about?
What we do know is that schooners and barges in the age of sail were used to bring a variety of evergreen trees from northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula annually in November to ports in the south for local merchants to sell to the public. No doubt the captains of these ships hoisted trees to the tops of masts to advertise the nature of their cargo.
There is a legend that Martin Luther was the first to display a lighted Christmas tree as a symbol of eternal life generated by the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Scholars provide evidence that the first decorated Christmas trees originated in Germany, back in 1521, in the region of Alsace. In 1605 a resident of Strasburg wrote that at Christmas, fir trees decorated with coloured papers, apples, wafers, golden foil and sweets were sometimes set up in the parlours of local houses.
In Germany around the middle of the seventeenth century decorated Christmas trees grew in popularity and the idea spread to America at the beginning of the eighteenth century when Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until 1837 when Helen of Mecklenburg had a tree in Paris that it became fashionable in France. In 1841 Prince Albert decorated a tree at Windsor Castle.
There is doubt regarding the symbolism of a decorated Christmas tree, but some Christians may have likened it to ‘new birth’ and eternal life in Jesus Christ; whereas others may have thought of the tree as a symbol of the Paradise tree of life, and therefore decorated their trees with apples, representing the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve.
Today Christmas trees are exceedingly popular with Christians and non-Christians alike, but those who do not regard themselves as Christians simply use them as attractive decorations or consider them a necessity for maintaining a tradition, even being prepared to pay as much as £20.00 for a tree without roots!
More and more yachtsmen are extending their sailing season to include being afloat at Christmas. Perhaps we shall see their yachts being decorated with lights and trees in the fashion of Westerly Yacht owners at their annual December get-together.