Christmas Tree

The most widespread, and to children the most delightful, of all festal institutions is the Christmas-tree.


Its picturesqueness and gay charm have made it spread rapidly all over Europe without roots in national tradition, for, as most people know, it is a German creation, and even in Germany it attained its present immense popularity only in the nineteenth century. To Germany, of course, one should go to see the tree in all its glory. Many people, indeed, maintain that no other Christmas can compare with the German Weihnacht. “It is,” writes Miss I. A. R. Wylie, “that childish, open-hearted simplicity which, so it seems to me, makes Christmas essentially German, or at any rate explains why it is that nowhere else in the world does it find so pure an expression. The German is himself simple, warm-hearted, unpretentious, with something at the bottom of him which is childlike in the best sense. He is the last ‘Naturmensch’ in civilization.” Christmas suits him “as well as a play suits an actor for whose character and temperament it has been especially written.”

In Germany the Christmas-tree is not a luxury for well-to-do people as in England, but a necessity, the very centre of the festival; no one is too poor or too lonely to have one. There is something about a German Weihnachtsbaum—a romance and a wonder—that English Christmas-trees do not possess. For one thing, perhaps, in a land of forests the tree seems more in place; it is a kind of sacrament linking mankind to the mysteries of the woodland. Again the German tree is simply a thing of beauty and radiance; no utilitarian presents hang from its boughs—they are laid apart on a table—and the tree is purely splendour for splendour's sake. However tawdry it may look by day, at night it is a true thing of wonder, shining with countless lights and glittering ornaments, with fruit of gold and shimmering festoons of silver. Then there is the solemnity with which it is surrounded; the long secret preparations behind the closed doors, and, when Christmas Eve arrives, the sudden revelation of hidden glory. The Germans have quite a religious feeling for their Weihnachtsbaum, coming down, one may fancy, from some dim ancestral worship of the trees of the wood.


As Christmas draws near the market-place in a German town is filled with a miniature forest of firs; the trees are sold by old women in quaint costumes, and the shop-windows are full of candles and ornaments to deck them. Mrs. Alfred Sidgwick in her “Home Life in Germany” gives a delightful picture of such a Christmas market in “one of the old German cities in the hill country, when the streets and the open places are covered with crisp clean snow, and the mountains are white with it.... The air is cold and still, and heavy with the scent of the Christmas-trees brought from the forest for the pleasure of the children. Day by day you see the rows of them growing thinner, and if you go to the market on Christmas Eve itself you will find only a few trees left out in the cold. The market is empty, the peasants are harnessing their horses or their oxen, the women are packing up their unsold goods. In every home in the city one of the trees that scented the open air a week ago is shining now with lights and little gilded nuts and apples, and is helping to make that Christmas smell, all compact of the pine forest, wax candles, cakes and painted toys, you must associate so long as you live with Christmas in Germany.”

Even in London one may get a glimpse of the Teutonic Christmas in the half-German streets round Fitzroy Square. They are bald and drab enough, but at Christmas here and there a window shines with a lighted tree, and the very prosaic Lutheran church in Cleveland Street has an unwonted sight to show—two great fir-trees decked with white candles, standing one on each side of the pulpit. The church of the German Catholics, too, St. Boniface's, Whitechapel, has in its sanctuary two Christmas-trees strangely gay with coloured glistening balls and long strands of gold and silver engelshaar. The candles are lit at Benediction during the festival, and between the shining trees the solemn ritual is performed by the priest and a crowd of serving boys in scarlet and white with tapers and incense.


There is a pretty story about the institution of the Weihnachtsbaum by Martin Luther: how, after wandering one Christmas Eve under the clear winter sky lit by a thousand stars, he set up for his children a tree with countless candles, an image of the starry heaven whence Christ came down. This, however, belongs to the region of legend; the first historical mention of the Christmas-tree is found in the notes of a certain Strasburg citizen of unknown name, written in the year 1605. “At Christmas,” he writes, “they set up fir-trees in the parlours at Strasburg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.”

We next meet with the tree in a hostile allusion by a distinguished Strasburg theologian, Dr. Johann Konrad Dannhauer, Professor and Preacher at the Cathedral. In his book, “The Milk of the Catechism,” published about the middle of the seventeenth century, he speaks of “the Christmas- or fir-tree, which people set up in their houses, hang with dolls and sweets, and afterwards shake and deflower.” “Whence comes the custom,” he says, “I know not; it is child's play.... Far better were it to point the children to the spiritual cedar-tree, Jesus Christ.”

In neither of these references is there any mention of candles—the most fascinating feature of the modern tree. These appear, however, in a Latin work on Christmas presents by Karl Gottfried Kissling of the University of Wittenberg, written in 1737. He tells how a certain country lady of his acquaintance set up a little tree for each of her sons and daughters, lit candles on or around the trees, laid out presents beneath them, and called her children one by one into the room to take the trees and gifts intended for them.

With the advance of the eighteenth-century notices of the Weihnachtsbaum become more frequent: Jung Stilling, Goethe, Schiller, and others mention it, and about the end of the century its use seems to have been fairly general in Germany. In many places, however, it was not common till well on in the eighteen hundreds: it was a Protestant rather than a Catholic institution, and it made its way but slowly in regions where the older faith was held. Well-to-do townspeople welcomed it first, and the peasantry were slow to adopt it. In Old Bavaria, for instance, in 1855, it was quite unknown in country places, and even to-day it is not very common there, except in the towns. “It is more in vogue on the whole,” wrote Dr. Tille in 1893, “in the Protestant north than in the Catholic south,” but its popularity was rapidly growing at that time.


A common substitute for the Christmas-tree in Saxony during the nineteenth century, and one still found in country places, was the so-called “pyramid,” a wooden erection adorned with many-coloured paper and with lights. These pyramids were very popular among the smaller bourgeoisie and artisans, and were kept from one Christmas to another. In Berlin, too, the pyramid was once very common. It was there adorned with green twigs as well as with candles and coloured paper, and had more resemblance to the Christmas-tree. Tieck refers to it in his story, “Weihnacht-Abend” (1805).

Pyramids, without lights apparently, were known in England before 1840. In Hertfordshire they were formed of gilt evergreens, apples, and nuts, and were carried about just before Christmas for presents. In Herefordshire they were known at the New Year.

The Christmas-tree was introduced into France in 1840, when Princess Helene of Mecklenburg brought it to Paris. In 1890 between thirty and thirty-five thousand of the trees are said to have been sold in Paris.

In England it is alluded to in 1789, but its use did not become at all general until about the eighteen-forties. In 1840 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a Christmas-tree, and the fashion spread until it became completely naturalized. In Denmark and Norway it was known in 1830, and in Sweden in 1863 (among the Swedish population on the coast of Finland it seems to have been in use in 1800). In Bohemia it is mentioned in 1862. It is also found in Russia, the United States, Spain, Italy, and Holland, and of course in Switzerland and Austria, so largely German in language and customs. In non-German countries it is rather a thing for the well-to-do classes than for the masses of the people.


The Christmas-tree is essentially a domestic institution. It has, however, found its way into Protestant churches in Germany and from them into Catholic churches. Even the Swiss Zwinglians, with all their Puritanism, do not exclude it from their bare, white-washed fanes. In the Münsterthal, for instance, a valley of Romonsch speech, off the Lower Engadine, a tree decked with candles, festoons, presents, and serpent-squibs, stands in church at Christmas, and it is difficult for the minister to conduct service, for all the time, except during the prayers, the people are letting off fireworks. On one day between Christmas Eve and New Year there is a great present-giving in church.

In Munich, and doubtless elsewhere, the tree appears not only in the church and in the home, but in the cemetery. The graves of the dead are decked on Christmas Eve with holly and mistletoe and a little Christmas-tree with gleaming lights, a touching token of remembrance, an attempt, perhaps, to give the departed a share in the brightness of the festival.

The question of the origin of Christmas-trees is of great interest. Though their affinity to other sacraments of the vegetation-spirit is evident, it is difficult to be certain of their exact ancestry. Dr. Tille regards them as coming from a union of two elements: the old Roman custom of decking houses with laurels and green trees at the Kalends of January, and the popular belief that every Christmas Eve apple and other trees blossomed and bore fruit.

Before the advent of the Christmas-tree proper—a fir with lights and ornaments often imitating and always suggesting flowers and fruit—it was customary to put trees like cherry or hawthorn into water or into pots indoors, so that they might bud and blossom at New Year or Christmas. Even to-day the practice of picking boughs in order that they may blossom at Christmas is to be found in some parts of Austria. In Carinthia girls on St. Lucia's Day (December 13) stick a cherry-branch into wet sand; if it blooms at Christmas their wishes will be fulfilled. In other parts the branches—pear as well as cherry—are picked on St. Barbara's Day (December 4), and in South Tyrol cherry-trees are manured with lime on the first Thursday in Advent so that they may blossom at Christmas. The custom may have had to do with legendary lore about the marvellous transformation of Nature on the night of Christ's birth, when the rivers ran wine instead of water and trees stood in full blossom in spite of ice and snow.


In England there was an old belief in trees blossoming at Christmas, connected with the well-known legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea. When the saint settled at Glastonbury he planted his staff in the earth and it put forth leaves; moreover it blossomed every Christmas Eve. Not only the original thorn at Glastonbury but trees of the same species in other parts of England had this characteristic. When in 1752 the New Style was substituted for the Old, making Christmas fall twelve days earlier, folks were curious to see what the thorns would do. At Quainton in Buckinghamshire two thousand people, it is said, went out on the new Christmas Eve to view a blackthorn which had the Christmas blossoming habit. As no sign of buds was visible they agreed that the new Christmas could not be right, and refused to keep it. At Glastonbury itself nothing happened on December 24, but on January 5, the right day according to the Old Style, the thorn blossomed as usual.

Let us turn to the customs of the Roman Empire which may be in part responsible for the German Christmas-tree. The practice of adorning houses with evergreens at the January Kalends was common throughout the Empire, as we learn from Libanius, Tertullian, and Chrysostom. A grim denunciation of such decorations and the lights which accompanied them may be quoted from Tertullian; it makes a pregnant contrast of pagan and Christian. “Let them,” he says of the heathen, “kindle lamps, they who have no light; let them fix on the doorposts laurels which shall afterwards be burnt, they for whom fire is close at hand; meet for them are testimonies of darkness and auguries of punishment. But thou,” he says to the Christian, “art a light of the world and a tree that is ever green; if thou hast renounced temples, make not a temple of thy own house-door.”

That these New Year practices of the Empire had to do with the Weihnachtsbaum is very possible, but on the other hand it has closer parallels in certain folk-customs that in no way suggest Roman or Greek influence. Not only at Christmas are ceremonial “trees” to be found in Germany. In the Erzgebirge there is dancing at the summer solstice round “St. John's tree,” a pyramid decked with garlands and flowers, and lit up at night by candles. At midsummer “in the towns of the Upper Harz Mountains tall fir-trees, with the bark peeled off their lower trunks, were set up in open places and decked with flowers and eggs, which were painted yellow and red. Round these trees the young folk danced by day and the old folk in the evening”; while on Dutch ground in Gelderland and Limburg at the beginning of May trees were adorned with lights.

Nearer to Christmas is a New Year's custom found in some Alsatian villages: the adorning of the fountain with a “May.” The girls who visit the fountain procure a small fir-tree or holly-bush, and deck it with ribbons, egg-shells, and little figures representing a shepherd or a man beating his wife. This is set up above the fountain on New Year's Eve. On the evening of the next day the snow is carefully cleared away and the girls dance and sing around the fountain. The lads may only take part in the dance by permission of the girls. The tree is kept all through the year as a protection to those who have set it up.


In Sweden, before the advent of the German type of tree, it was customary to place young pines, divested of bark and branches, outside the houses at Christmastide. An English parallel which does not suggest any borrowing from Germany, was formerly to be found at Brough in Westmoreland on Twelfth Night. A holly-tree with torches attached to its branches was carried through the town in procession. It was finally thrown among the populace, who divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one inn, and the other, to a rival hostelry. We have here pretty plainly a struggle of two factions—perhaps of two quarters of a town that were once separate villages—for the possession of a sacred object.

We may find parallels, lastly, in two remote corners of Europe. In the island of Chios—here we are on Greek ground—tenants are wont to offer to their landlords on Christmas morning a rhamna, a pole with wreaths of myrtle, olive, and orange leaves bound around it; “to these are fixed any flowers that may be found—geraniums, anemones, and the like, and, by way of further decoration, oranges, lemons, and strips of gold and coloured paper.” Secondly, among the Circassians in the early half of the nineteenth century, a young pear-tree used to be carried into each house at an autumn festival, to the sound of music and joyous cries. It was covered with candles, and a cheese was fastened to its top. Round about it they ate, drank, and sang. Afterwards it was removed to the courtyard, where it remained for the rest of the year.

Though there is no recorded instance of the use of a tree at Christmas in Germany before the seventeenth century, the Weihnachtsbaum may well be a descendant of some sacred tree carried about or set up at the beginning-of-winter festival. All things considered, it seems to belong to a class of primitive sacraments of which the example most familiar to English peoples is the May-pole. This is, of course, an early summer institution, but in France and Germany a Harvest May is also known—a large branch or a whole tree, which is decked with ears of corn, brought home on the last waggon from the harvest field, and fastened to the roof of farmhouse or barn, where it remains for a year. Mannhardt has shown that such sacraments embody the tree-spirit conceived as the spirit of vegetation in general, and are believed to convey its life-giving, fructifying influences. Probably the idea of contact with the spirit of growth lay also beneath the Roman evergreen decorations, so that whether or not we connect the Christmas-tree with these, the principle at the bottom is the same.


Certain Christian ideas, finally, besides that of trees blossoming on the night of the Nativity, may have affected the fortunes of the Christmas-tree. December 24 was in old Church calendars the day of Adam and Eve, the idea being that Christ the second Adam had repaired by His Incarnation the loss caused by the sin of the first. A legend grew up that Adam when he left Paradise took with him an apple or sprout from the Tree of Knowledge, and that from this sprang the tree from which the Cross was made. Or it was said that on Adam's grave grew a sprig from the Tree of Life, and that from it Christ plucked the fruit of redemption. The Cross in early Christian poetry was conceived as the Tree of Life planted anew, bearing the glorious fruit of Christ's body, and repairing the mischief wrought by the misuse of the first tree. We may recall a verse from the “Pange, lingua” of Passiontide:—

“Faithful Cross! above all other,
One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be:
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.”

In the religious Christmas plays the tree of Paradise was sometimes shown to the people. At Oberufer, for instance, it was a fine juniper-tree, adorned with apples and ribbons. Sometimes Christ Himself was regarded as the tree of Paradise. The thought of Him as both the Light of the World and the Tree of Life may at least have given a Christian meaning to the light-bearing tree, and helped to establish its popularity among pious folk.


But the prettiest method of distributing Christmas gifts was reserved for comparatively modern times, in the Christmas tree. Anent this wonderful tree there are many speculations, one or two so curious that they deserve mention. It is said of a certain living Professor that he deduces everything from an Indian or Aryan descent; and there is a long and very learned article by Sir George Birdwood, C.S.I., in the Asiatic Quarterly Review (vol. i. pp. 19, 20), who endeavours to trace it to an eastern origin. He says: "Only during the past thirty or forty years has the custom become prevalent in England of employing the Christmas tree as an appropriate decoration, and a most delightful vehicle for showering down gifts upon the young, in connection with domestic and public popular celebrations of the joyous ecclesiastical Festival of the Nativity. It is said to have been introduced among us from Germany, where it is regarded as indigenous, and it is, probably, a survival of some observance connected with the pagan Saturnalia of the winter solstice, to supersede which, the Church, about the fifth century of our era, instituted Christmas day.

"It has, indeed, been explained as being derived from the [Pg 188] ancient Egyptian practice of decking houses at the time of the winter solstice with branches of the date palm, the symbol of life triumphant over death, and therefore of perennial life in the renewal of each bounteous year; and the supporters of this suggestion point to the fact that pyramids of green paper, covered all over with wreaths and festoons of flowers, and strings of sweetmeats, and other presents for children, are often substituted in Germany for the Christmas Tree.


"But similar pyramids, together with similar trees, the latter, usually, altogether artificial, and often constructed of the costliest materials, even of gems and gold, are carried about at marriage ceremonies in India, and at many festivals, such as the Hoolee, or annual festival of the vernal equinox. These pyramids represent Mount Meru and the earth; and the trees, the Kalpadruma, or 'Tree of Ages,' and the fragrant Parajita, the tree of every perfect gift, which grew on the slopes of Mount Meru; and, in their enlarged sense, they symbolise the splendour of the outstretched heavens, as of a tree, laden with golden fruit, deep-rooted in the earth. Both pyramids and trees are also phallic emblems of life, individual, terrestrial, and celestial. Therefore, if a relationship exists between the Egyptian practice of decking houses at the winter solstice with branches of the date palm, and the German and English custom of using gift-bearing and brilliantly illuminated evergreen trees, which are, nearly always, firs, as a Christmas decoration, it is most probably due to collateral rather than to direct descent; and this is indicated by the Egyptians having regarded the date palm, not only as an emblem of immortality, but, also, of the starlit firmament."

Others attempt to trace the Christmas tree to the Scandinavian legend of the mystic tree Yggdrasil, which sprang from the centre of Mid-gard, and the summit of As-gard, with branches spreading out over the whole earth, and reaching above the highest heavens, whilst its three great roots go down into the lowest hell.

A writer in the Cornhill Magazine, December 1886, thus accounts for the candles on the tree—"But how came the lights on the Christmas tree?

"In the ninth month of the Jewish year, corresponding nearly to our December, and on the twenty-fifth day, the Jews [Pg 189] celebrated the Feast of the Dedication of their Temple. It had been desecrated on that day by Antiochus; it was rededicated by Judas Maccabeus; and then, according to the Jewish legend, sufficient oil was found in the Temple to last for the seven-branched candlestick for seven days, and it would have taken seven days to prepare new oil. Accordingly, the Jews were wont, on the twenty-fifth of Kislen, in every house, to light a candle, on the next day, two, and so on, till on the seventh and last day of the feast, seven candles twinkled in every house. It is not easy to fix the exact date of the Nativity, but it fell, most probably, on the last day of Kislen, when every Jewish house in Bethlehem and Jerusalem was twinkling with lights. It is worthy of notice that the German name for Christmas is Weihnacht, the Night of Dedication, as though it were associated with this feast. The Greeks also call Christmas the Feast of Lights; and, indeed, this also was a name given to the Dedication Festival, Chanuka, by the Jews."

That this pretty Christ-tide custom came to us from Germany there can be no doubt, and all the early notices of it show that it was so. Thus the first mention of it that I can find is in Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte, being the Journals of Mrs. Papendiek, vol. ii. 158. Speaking of Christ-tide 1789, she says: "This Christmas Mr. Papendiek proposed an illuminated tree, according to the German fashion, but the Blagroves being at home for their fortnight, and the party at Mrs. Roach's for the holidays, I objected to it. Our eldest girl, Charlotte, being only six the 30th of this November, I thought our children too young to be amused at so much expense and trouble."


A.J.Kempe, Esq., in a footnote to p. 75 of the Losely MSS., edited by him in 1836, says: "We remember a German of the household of the late Queen Caroline making what he termed a Christmas tree for a juvenile party at that festive season. The tree was a branch of some evergreen fastened to a board. Its boughs bent under the weight of gilt oranges, almonds, etc., and under it was a neat model of a farm house, surrounded by figures of animals, etc., and all due accompaniments."

Charles Greville, in his Memoirs, writes thus of Christ-tide [Pg 190] 1829 as celebrated at Panshanger. "The Princess Lieven got up a little fête such as is customary all over Germany. Three trees in great pots were put upon a long table covered with pink linen; each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles—blue, green, red, and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, work boxes, books, and various articles—presents made to the owner of the tree. It was very pretty. Here it was only for the children; in Germany the custom extends to persons of all ages."


One more extract, to show about what time it became popular, and I have done. It is from Mary Howitt, an Autobiography (vol. i. 298). "Our practical knowledge of the Christmas tree was gained in this first winter at Heidelberg. Universal as the custom now is, I believe the earliest knowledge which the English public had of it was through Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria. It had, at the time I am writing of—1840—been introduced into Manchester by some of the German merchants established there. Our Queen and Prince Albert likewise celebrated the festival with its beautiful old German customs. Thus the fashion spread, until now even our asylums, schools, and workhouses have, through friends and benefactors, each its Christmas tree."

Christmas In Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan by Clement A. Miles—1912

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