JOURNAL

Topping Out: The Origins Of An Ancient Tradition

By: Jorge de la Cal

Last month, our journal entry about the topping out ceremony at Shriners for Children Medical Center got me wondering about the ceremony that we’ve seen on many jobs—a tradition that seems newer than the laying of a cornerstone rite, but more ancient than a ribbon-cutting ceremony. And it also made me wonder, why the pine tree?

Tree_shriners

It turns out that this construction celebration is widely observed in the US and throughout northern Europe and has ancient roots. The most widely cited story of its origins credits pre-Dark Age Scandinavian cultures and perhaps symbolized bringing life to the building. The 8th century ceremonies didn’t use trees. Sheaths of grain were attached to the highest roof beam. As the custom spread in Europe, pine boughs and later entire trees were used. According to a Slate magazine article “In cultures closely tuned to the natural environment, there may have been a pleasing visual analogy between the growth of a tree and the raising of a building. Perhaps a prayerful humility was conjured by the (temporary) elevation of a tree above the top of a man-made structure.”

But there are competitive tales to the Scandinavian version. One says the practice started in 2700 BC Egypt, when slaves placed a plant on top of a pyramid when it was completed to honor slaves who died during construction. Another story has a more modern angle: when high rises were first built in this country, contractors employed several Native American workers, who according to the tale believed no man-made structure should be taller than a tree.

Whatever the slant, all stories say the evergreen symbolizes positive things—good luck for future occupants, continued growth, a safe job—and celebrates an important achievement in a building’s construction. (Wikipedia link)

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