Letters From The Field

Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree …

A letter for Christmas. In which is pondered the question where the tradition of decorating fir trees for the holiday season may come from.

Germany, Christmas of 2015

my dear

it’s that time of the year again and of course I just have to write again to send my Christmas greetings and best wishes to you. Well, I hope you already got all of your Christmas presents together. Do you? And what about the Christmas tree – already got it up and twinkling?

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Apropos Christmas tree … I mean, it doesn’t really need an expert on folklore to recognise these holidays as some deeply rooted religious festivity, right? The very reason already in the name – celebrating the birth of Christ, who is a pretty central figure in Christian religion (well, pretty obvious, isn’t it?), which by the course of history has become the major cultural background to our western society – making Christmas one of the most important holidays here … not any longer a strictly religious but as much a secular holiday. The season comes with a lot of traditions – Christmas Mass and nativity scene depicting most obviously  its religious background. We even still recognise the story of Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop and saint behind the figure of Santa Claus, that eagerly anticipated deliverer of presents.

But what now about that tree? That other symbol of the season. Richly adorned sparkling in our festive winterly parlours, the gathering point of the whole family where everyone finds their presents under the fir sprigs at Christmas Eve – at least over here in Germany. Yes, Christmas without a tree seems hardly imaginable, doesn’t it? Yet, it’s not exactly a genuine part of that Bethlehem stable scene; the reference source in all things Christian religion, the Bible, apparently has a pretty clear point on what early church fathers thought about adorning trees:

“A tree from the forest is cut down
and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.
They decorate it with silver and gold (…)
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field (…)
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
neither is it in them to do good.”

(Jeremiah 10: 3-5, English Standard Version)

That is a rather definite announcement against heathen idolatry, making clear that the early church seemed to have been not too fond of glittering trees all covered in Christmas decoration. So, did you ever ask yourself where this tradition then comes from? Well, I did. And – you know me – I dug a bit into the books to find an answer. A pretty interesting story by the way. Apparently, the custom can be tracked back for sure to 19th century Germany – starting in Protestant regions (the Catholic church still rather hesitating with the supposedly heathen tradition – but who’d doubted that after this quote from Jeremiah above, right?) – from where it spread around the world; until this day being the centre of any good German Christmassy living room. Yet its deeper roots seem to be buried in history. There are a lot of stories, but only few sources.

In northern Europe, for instance, applying evergreens (with their symbolism of vitality even in winter) to houses, doors, and windows was an accepted means of protection against evil spirits. And in ancient Rome it was not uncommon to decorate houses with laurel branches at the turn of the year. Furthermore, the incarnation of the sun god in Roman Mithraism was honoured by decorating a tree for winter solstice and it is argued that early Christianity was at least partly influenced by ancient Mithraic Mysteries, Christmas celebrated at the sun god’s birthday at December 25 (constituted by a 4th century Roman bishop) not by pure coincidence, helping accelerate the acceptance of this then new religion. However, it still was quite a way to these festively adorned fir trees in our living rooms today.

First written mention of a weienacht baum” comes from a document issued in 1527 Mainz in southwestern Germany as I just read. Another document proves that a Christmas tree was set up in Strasbourg cathedral in Alsace (today France) in 1539. There even is the depiction of a tree adorned with candles and stars on a chalcography by Lucas Cranach the Elder from 1509. I would assume that this somehow would suggest that there already was some tradition of decorating trees for Christmas season established at that time. Some sources even refer to a tree hung with nuts and fruits by the Freiburg bakers guild as early as 1419 in Germany, others mention something similar for the Bremen craft guild in 1570 – the tree shaken of its harvest by the end of the year for the children to collect it. Interestingly, placing fruits on a tree as kind of decoration may indeed have an even older tradition as in medieval times the annual nativity play sometimes could include a ‘paradise play’ for which a tree (not necessarily a fir tree though) was adorned with apples, representing the Old Testament’s ‘tree of knowledge’ (you know, the one this cunning snake persuaded Eve to have some snack from). However, by the end of the 16th century trees full of sweets, nuts, and apples seem to have left the exclusivity of guild halls and churches and arrived in bourgeois parlours. Finally.

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Still, we would have needed to wait two centuries to finally wrap our Christmas trees in the glittering effect of ice and snow with the arrival of tinsel and lametta in 1878. But yet I did not even start with the strange and mysterious ‘Christmas Cucumber’ among the richness of decoration – said to apparently be an old German tradition which seems hard to find these days even in the well-equipped Christmas snuggeries throughout the country. But this should be left for another winter evening’s letter over mulled wine and Christmas cookies. For now I wish you happy holidays and some splendid specimen of a tree. Merry Christmas my friend!

sincerely


This text was originally written for and published  for the “Holiday Traditions” series at Nicolette Orlemans’ “Culture With Travel” blog in December 2015.

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12 comments on “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree …

  1. GalOnTrip
    December 24, 2015

    Interesting article about xmas tree origin. I went to Tallinn and our Estonian tour guide showed us where they put xmas tree in public for the first time, it was at the main square (I forget the name already). He said that his country iniated to put a xmas tree in public before other (European) countries do.
    Did you find anything about it while doing your research? I wonder if the claim is actually true or there are some locals ma

  2. GalOnTrip
    December 24, 2015

    Continuation from the previous comment. …. some locals made it up, like an urban legend, to make it believeable for the next generation? Just wanna know your thoughts about this. Have a great Xmas!

    • Jens
      December 24, 2015

      Now this is actually interesting. I did not (yet) stumble upon this piece of info during reading for this little entry here. Of course this does not have to mean it’s made up at all. I’m pretty sure, public trees have a rather long tradition (just think of those ‘May trees’ in central Europe for instance) and evergreen fir branches certainly have had some meaning beyond and before Christmas. In the end it comes all to the question when these different traditions were shaoed into what we perceive today. So, I’d definitely most interested in learning more about the various local variants like the one you reported here. Makes some interesting history of culture, doesn’t it. Oh, and merry Christmas to you as well!

  3. elbrenzink
    December 24, 2015

    Lol! Looks like a archeologist that really enjoy Christmas’ traditions. Definitively the kind of people to be around during this time of year. Marry Christmas Jens.😉🎄🎅🎁

    • Jens
      December 25, 2015

      Haha, yeah – it’s zhis curiosity I hardly can get rid of. Always asking “Why?” like some annoying kid. ;-)

      Merry Christmas to you as well!

  4. Crystal M. Trulove
    December 26, 2015

    I have known the Christmas tree is attributed to Germany for a long time… I think one of my elementary school teachers had done the research for us. In honor of that, we sang “O Tannenbaum” all in German rather than O Christmas Tree that year for the school holiday performance. Another tree tradition I have heard attributed to Germany is that many construction sites here will place an evergreen tree on top of the crane. Then at Christmas time, the tree – still on top of the crane – is decorated! That has led to many construction cranes themselves being decorated at Christmas, even when there is no tree on top.

    Still, all that being said, your original quote from Jeremiah made me stop in my tracks. Wait, wait, wait. Doesn’t this sound precisely like a description of a Christmas tree? I’m unfamiliar with this Bible reference, so I guess it could mean people cut down trees, and decorated them with silver and gold at any time of the year, and not necessarily at the time of Samhain or Solstice or Christ’s birth. But… I can’t help but think this places the original decorated tree far ahead of the 16th century that you found in your references. Did you have any thoughts on this?

    • Jens
      December 26, 2015

      You’re right about the so-called topping out ceremony which is indeed an essential tradition on any construction site over here (usually when the last beam is placed on top) – the ‘wreath’ of straw and evergreens actually decorated (at least with colourful ribbons) not only at Christmas season.

      I assume this does also go back to some religious ritual about ‘blessing’ the building and anything / anyone in it, but honestly never thought of a relation to the Christmas tree …

      Made me curious, so I did some quick reading: Apparently the tradition goes back at last to the 14th century and the festivities around it seem to have been connected to the compensation of work involved in the construction, some symbolic yet obligatory and legally binding act.

      Regarding ‘Jeremiah’: to be honest, judging by the full context of that quote it could refer more to wooden idols carved from trees (much like those known from Germanic, Slawic and other so-called heathen cult places) rather than actual Christmas trees. But it still seems interesting to find some kind of older root to the tradition of adorning and decorating trees, in my eyes.

      • Crystal M. Trulove
        December 26, 2015

        Ha ha ha, yes, I looked up Jeremiah last night and was skimming through it and reading choice points out loud to my teenager. That book is more scandalous than Levitcus! I lean toward your opinion on that bit, taken in context, and agree that it is still interesting to find a similar root to the tradition. Even better, the root could be found among the badly behaved! I’ve always liked that group.

        I wonder if Americans have brought those two tree traditions together in my mind at Christmas because of the decorating part of it? I could be the only human who has linked them. ;-) Well, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, and thanks for your research. And a big shout out to the Germans for some of my favourite traditions.

      • Jens
        December 26, 2015

        Always fun to read about something which seems so omnipresent and obvious on first glance, but raising more and more questions once one starts digging a bit into it’s background. I actually enjoy this kind of stuff. ;-)

        Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you and your family as well!

  5. windsorjenny
    December 28, 2015

    Really nice read thanks and Happy New Year Ahead….

  6. norman
    January 6, 2016

    Excellent watercolors and wonderful storry. Funnily enough you got some royal peers. In her anual christmas speech the queen stressed this year, that her ancestor Prince Albert brought the christmas tree to england (and replaced twigs etc they were using before..jule trees or something)

    • Jens
      January 6, 2016

      Glad to hear! Yes, Lizzy and me, we always seemed to be on the same wave length – at least regarding this kind of things. ;-)
      Thanks for the compliments too!

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This entry was posted on December 24, 2015 by in Cultural Anthropology and tagged , , , , .
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