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The Christmas Tree Tradition

Updated on September 2, 2009

It is hard now to grasp what darkness, cold and isolation meant in earlier days, when winter set in. The darkness of the shortening days as well as the fear of the winter certainly contributed to the names given to November, "The Month of the Dead', 'the Month of Mourning'. Samhain Eve (Halloween, 31 October) was particularly dangerous, because the dead were believed to return that night from the other world. Manifold attempts were made to welcome them to their old homes: green branches were put up, and fires were lit, for the dead love the warming fire. The Christian Church, in a struggle lasting many centuries, tried to wean the people from these pagan practices by sublimating the Samhain rites and transferring them to the more joyful feasts of midwinter: Christmas, the New Year, and Twelfth Night. It has thus become difficult to differentiate precisely between original Samhain rites and the customs practised at Christmas, on New Year's Eve and on Twelfth Night, and practically impossible to say whether a particular rite is a survival of the ancient welcoming of the dead or of practices supposed to avert evil spirits. They were confused a long time ago and have now been lost sight of.

A thorough investigation of the German origin of the Christmas tree and its gradual reception in other countries was made by Mrs L. Weiser-Aall of Oslo. The first written evidence she has found dates from the beginning of the sixteenth century, when a decorated 'May tree' was put up at Christmas in the assembly rooms of various German guilds. By that time, the great cultural transformations which had begun in former centuries were more or less completed: until 1500, the old peasant culture and medieval religious notions prevailed; after 1517, Protestantism spread over Germany, and many new customs, fashions and habits were passed on from the new middle class, living in towns, to people living in the country.

During the second half of the sixteenth century the Protestant town-dwellers devised their own Christmas celebration. They adopted the Christmas tree of the Roman Catholic guilds, causing opposition among Protestant theologians, a fact to which we owe the first reference, in 1642, to a Christmas tree in a private house. Liselotte von der Pfalz, the famous letter-writer, remembered having seen in her childhood, about 1660, a box tree, the branches of which supported candles. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the custom spread from town to town, from the courts of the German princes to high officials and to the wealthy middle class. Shortly after 1822 German merchants introduced the Christmas tree to Norway and England, notably first to Manchester. Mrs Weiser-Aall has found that clergymen, civil servants, teachers and emigrants returning from the United States, also helped to spread the custom, as well as sailors who had seen some Christmas trees in Germany. Prince Albert's Christmas tree at Windsor (1841) and many descriptions and illustrations in journals and books gave further popularity to the custom.

In many Protestant countries the distribution of gifts among the children was postponed in the nineteenth century from St Nicolas's Day (6 December) to 24 December - and in course of time St Nicolas, the patron saint of schoolboys, became Father Christmas. Only small gifts were usual in the nineteenth century, and they were often fastened to the Christmas tree itself: dried plums, raisins, nuts, apples, gingerbread in the shapes of Adam and Eve or animals. The apples as well as the figures of Adam and Eve are reminiscent of the medieval Paradise plays and of the legend that the apple-tree of Paradise was, by Christ's birth, relieved of its curse and was allowed again to bear fruit. In the countryside the farmers were for a long time too thrifty to make presents, but eventually the custom of present-giving conquered the countryside together with the Christmas tree, which the children were often allowed to 'plunder'; it usually remained in the house until Epiphany.

In Germany the children were never allowed to see the tree before the candles were lit on Christmas Eve; only sometimes the older children are allowed to help with the decoration of the tree, from which long chains of silver and gold tinsel or coloured balls reflecting the candlelight are suspended. Nowadays the decorations are often less colourful: silver lametta, 'angels' hair', and silver balls allude to the glittering of hoar-frost and icicles. In Bavaria, small Christmas trees are taken to the churchyard and are put on the graves of the recently departed. In England, as well as on the Continent, we are now witnessing the unfortunate change-over from wax candles to coloured electric bulbs. Here and elsewhere, for example in London and New York, we may also notice the 'Christmas Tree for all' in churches or on public squares. Soviet Russia has its public Christmas trees with Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden, as well as domestic Christmas trees. Since 1950, Norway every year has sent some of her finest fir trees as presents to English and Scottish towns. In Great Britain the now widespread popularity of the Christmas tree among all classes means also an extensive trade in young conifers, in particular the Norway Spruce, much of which is supplied from the new state forests.

Mrs Weiser-Aall has shown in a convincing manner that true symbols such as the evergreen tree and the lights never die out. Their interpretations may vary in the course of time, but the fundamental experience remains the same. Sometimes the Christmas tree is interpreted as a Christian symbol. The 'Christmas Tree for all', which has been adopted by many countries, is now understood as a symbol of unity and concord among nations, religions and classes.

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