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The Origins Of Christmas Trees And Their Decorations Part III

Updated on November 14, 2012
German Christmas Pyramid
German Christmas Pyramid
Victorian Christmas Tree
Victorian Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree And The Church

When it comes to Christmas, the Church has done its best to make sure Christ or at least God played some sort of role. This extends to the shaping of what we now consider Christmas Tree traditions.

The Middle Ages

The Church was not without its own influence in the popularity of the tree and its creation or reinvention. During the Middle Ages, the tree was incorporated into the cycles of Medieval Mystery and Morality plays. A main prop in a play about Adam and Eve was a fir tree hung with apples. Referred to as the "Paradise tree," it symbolized the Garden of Eden. German families set up a Paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. Wafers, symbolizing the bread distributed at communion, hung upon its branches. Because of the proximity of Christmas, candles representing Christ as the light of the world often appeared on the tree. Eventually, cookies and other sweets replaced the wafers. In Ireland, candles were coloured, each district having its own particular preference. Candles not only lit up trees, but were placed in the window. This was also done in England.

The Paradise tree was taking on a life of its own. The church became upset with the focus on a tree and not on the Christ child. In the 1640s, for example, Johann Konrad Dannahauer (1603-1666), an Orthodox Lutheran theologian wrote: “Among other trifles which are set up during Christmas time instead of God’s word is the Christmas tree or fir tree which is put up at home and decorated with dolls and sugars.”

John Calvin (1509-1564) had previously acted to condemn the tree. In the 16th century, he felt both Christmas and Easter were too frivolous. The Germans generally ignored his feelings on this subject, but England’s Puritans, influenced by his writings, forbade the celebration of Christmas.

In the same room as the tree, Germans kept a Christmas pyramid made of wood, with shelves to hold figurines. The pyramid sported decorations of evergreens, candles and a star. By the 16th century, the pyramid and the Paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree so popular today.

The Advance Of The Christmas Tree

As the decades passed, the decorations on trees reflected an aesthetic, and not always a religious belief. In the 18th century, trees became a delightful confection of sweets, but gold-leaf-covered apples and gilded fruits and nuts also hung from the branches. In 1755, Berliners selected gilded potatoes to decorate their trees, but, usually, the ornaments were edible ones - candies, cookies. This resulted in the nickname “sugar tree.” The popularity only grew when the painting featuring Martin Luther was reproduced everywhere.

The tree tradition soon spread into Austria, set up in 1816 in the Royal court of Princess Henriette in Vienna. It soon spread to Finland, Denmark and Norway (1830), Sweden (1863) and Bohemia (1862). Usually, the tree appeared with the arrival of Germans - soldiers, settlers and royal spouses. Although England was slow to accept it, the support of Victoria and Albert ensured its spread.

The Christmas Tree In England

The Christmas tree came to England with its German citizens. German merchants in Manchester had Christmas trees as early as 1822. In 1829, a German Princess living in London, Princess Lieven, held a holiday party for her children. It included a large tree decorated with multi-coloured candles. The Royal family, German by descent and temperament, had set up trees for Christmas throughout their reign. This included Queen Charlotte’s Court in 1836. The tree was not common, however, among the British until the reign of Queen Victoria. It was Prince Albert, her German husband, who popularized the tree in England. Traditionally, if falsely, Albert is said to have provided the Royal family with its first tree in 1846. English society never looked back.

These trees had elaborate decorations including candles, candies, paper chains, and fancy cakes hung from the branches on ribbons. In England, and elsewhere, these sweets were not simply ornaments, but the gifts themselves. In Victorian England, many children “opened” their gifts of marzipan, cookies and exotic fruits (oranges, tangerines), and toys, by denuding the tree.

Conclusion

While the church adopted and used the Christmas tree for its own purposes, secular interests soon took over. The Christmas Tree grew from a religious (both Pagan and Christian) icon to become a world-wide symbol of the festival of Christmas. Part IV will look at the Christmas tree in the New World as well as the changes in ornaments and the tree itself.

Sources:

Aswynn, Freya Northern Mysteries. (St. Paul, MN, 1990).

Buchanan, R.H “Calendar Customs.” Ulster Folklore. 8 (1962).

Campanelli, P. Pagan Rites of Passage. (St. Paul, MN., 1998).

Wheel of the Year. (St. Paul, MN, 1989).

Durie, William. “Tree and Plant Lore.” The Celtic Magazine. 11 (1886).

Fowler, W. The Roman Festivals in the Time of the Republic. (London, 1899).

Krythe, Maymie, R. All About Christmas (New York, 1954).

Matthews, J. The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. (Wheaton, Il., 1998)

Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (New York, [1912] 1978).

Muir, Frank Christmas Customs and Traditions (New York, 1975).

Slade, Paddy. Encyclopedia of White Magic. (New York, 1990).

Snyder, Phillip V. The Christmas Tree Book. (New York, 1976).

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