Perhaps you’ve been driving down the road and see a building under construction and as you look more closely you see there’s a Christmas Tree on top of it. The next logical thing to enter one’s mind is “why is there a Christmas Tree on top of that building under construction?” That certainly is a valid question, and if you ask someone you’ll find that there are more than a few answers and just as many parallel traditions across many cultures throughout the world. The first explanation that I heard was that my father told me it was a German tradition that was supposed to bring good luck during the construction process. There are, however, more explanations than this.
The oldest tradition cited is that this tradition began in ancient Egypt where it was said that the slaves building the pyramids would place a plant at the top in honor of those who died during construction. Given that it’s believed the pyramids were built by paid laborers who considered it an honor to work for Pharaoh, this theory may not hold much water. Those who built the pyramids and died were often given honorable burials near the pyramids, so a separate ceremony with a tree on to top of the pyramid is unneeded and would detract from the honor due to Pharaoh, so this origin is suspect. There are a few other competing origin stories from antiquity, but the most believable would be that the tradition started more recently in Europe.
Since evergreen trees are common throughout Europe, it makes sense that the tradition originated in Scandinavia or in Germany, especially since descendants of immigrants from those areas brought this tradition to America. About 1300 years ago, Norwegians, Swedes or Finns may have used the tree to symbolize the end of building and the start of the “after party” for the completion of a building project, although some traditions keep that a scarecrow is erected instead to indicate there was to be no party! The Scandinavian tradition is thought to have gone back further and the tree erected to appease forest spirits and may have been displayed with other fertility symbols like eggs and corn to symbolize new birth in the form of a new building. The idea that the tree would ensure the forest spirits from the trees used to make the house would not be rendered homeless was also part of the deal. The German tradition varies slightly in that it doesn’t involve forest spirits, but is said to derive from the Christian tradition and the Nativity, and thus symbolize the birth of a new building. In either case, the symbolism for celebrating something new with the completion of an important part of the building process seems to be at the heart of the tradition and it’s a great way to give workers an important milestone to celebrate.
This tradition spread throughout Europe and eventually to America where the Christmas tree is often placed on top of a building whose last steel beam has been placed, symbolizing the completion, or safe completion of a given building’s superstructure, although sometimes you might see the tree on a crane or uncompleted structure, probably for good luck. Today, the last beam is often painted white and signed by all who had a hand in the construction. This being America, the American flag is often, but not always, included with the Christmas tree on the steel beam and that has its origins back to the early part of the 1900s. The flags were believed to have been added on many building projects to protest the American Plan of 1919 which sought to get rid of labor unions and the flag was used to protest the plan, but display loyalty to America. The Christmas tree and flag didn’t always go together until recent years, however, and now that both traditions are somewhat tied together serve to show the patriotism of the workers and also to symbolize the safe completion of a building and the new birth and good fortune of whatever business is to reside within the structure. Topping out ceremonies are kind of a big deal!
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