Inventing the Christmas Tree

Inventing the Christmas Tree


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300186529
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2012
Pages: 108
Sales rank: 1,066,823
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Bernd Brunner is a freelance writer who often explores the intersection of cultural history and the history of science in his writings. He divides his time between Istanbul, Turkey, and Berlin, Germany.

Read an Excerpt

Inventing the Christmas Tree

By Bernd Brunner

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2012 Bernd Brunner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18886-8

Chapter One

A Tree Full of Mystery

A colorfully decorated, fragrant tree, lit with strings of twinkling lights—the most important and enduring symbol of Christmas, the major annual festival in the Christian world. When it's snowy and dark outside and the days are short, the tree lets us dream of nature's life force returning. Its deep evergreen is the symbol of life long-lasting, and its decorations—anticipating the buds and blossoms of the coming season—give the tree a hint of fairyland. A visual magnet, it lightens the gloom of winter, delivers a slice of the forest within the walls of the home, and, on Christmas Eve, awakens joy and hope that the sun will soon return for longer hours.

Sometimes it can be useful to make the familiar seem alien. Of course, trees are not normally found in houses, nor are they decorated with candles, straw stars, tinsel, or glass balls. Instead, they are more likely to bear blossoms, fruits, or pinecones, or the weight of birds and squirrels. And most trees have roots that stretch deep into the ground. But the tree in this book usually has only its crown and trunk—and its place is in the home. A wholly remarkable tree, in short, one in need of an explanation. Although now inseparable from Christmas for us, the tree isn't found in this form in early Christianity at all. It is missing even from church songs and prayers. Something mysterious surrounds this tree that first appeared in the German cultural context, before it literally branched out into other central and northern European countries, America, Russia, and beyond, capturing the imagination of many people. This book also tells a small global story.

What drove people to go off into the forest, chop down a tree, put it in their house, and decorate it in the first place? Is it really just a pagan remnant—as conventional wisdom has it—or is the history behind it more complex? What is the symbolic message it conveys?

The Search for the First Tree

And then, all of a sudden, there it was. It seems to have appeared ex nihilo; first only here and there, and soon all the more frequently. Scant notes, censures, and prohibitions in yellowed documents and notebooks of old testify to its existence, but even these are mostly indirect. A precise record of its appearance is nowhere to be found. In 1419 the Freiburg Fraternity of Baker's Apprentices appears to have seen a tree decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread, and tinsel in the local Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Another document claims that the first Christmas tree was erected in Tallinn, Estonia, in the year 1441. There the tree was set up in front of the town hall for a dance. The record is ambiguous, though, for the Middle Low German word that was used—bom—could also have referred to a decorated mast or pole.

In Riga, Latvia, the claim is that the first decorated Christmas tree can be dated to 1510. The so-called Blackheads—foreign traders who had formed a guild—are said to have erected a tree in front of the town hall at the time of the winter solstice. Children decorated the tree with woolen thread, straw, and apples before burning it at Lent.

Even in England, during the reign of King Henry VIII (1491–1547), a special kind of seasonal tree seems to have been prominent, according to the Loseley manuscripts:

Agaynste the xii daye, or the day of the Epiphanie, at nighte before the banket at Richmonde, was a pageaunt devised like a mountayne glisteringe by night, as tho' it had bene all of golde and set with stones; on the top of which mountayne was a tree of golde, the braunches and bowes frysed with golde, spredynge on every side over the mountayne with roses and pomegarnettes. (quoted in The Living Age, August 8, 1857).

Is this an early Christmas tree?

These are not the only conjectures. Muazzez Ilmiye Çig, a Turkish archaeologist, believes that the Christmas tree has its roots in the Central Asian steppe, where people covered a wishing tree in ribbons in homage to the god Bai-Ulgan, who lived above the sun, the moon, and the stars. This offering was made in the course of a festival celebrated by the ancient Turkish folk on December 23. The custom then apparently was brought to Europe by the Huns. This theory is disputed and few agree with Çig that this tree ritual gave birth to the Christmas tree we decorate today.

Let us return to central Europe, for only there is the continuity of the tradition's first few centuries undisputed. Above all, we must look to Alsace—that rich Franco–German landscape between the green slopes of the Vosges Mountains in the west and the Black Forest in the east. There a Christmas tree, raised in the Strasbourg Cathedral, can be dated to the year 1539, a time of economic blossoming, before the Thirty Years' War.

The chronicle of a guild in Bremen from 1570 contains references to a tree placed in the guild's hall and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels, and paper flowers. For the Christmas celebration the children were allowed to shake the tree as they would have during the fall harvest. Sometimes these decorated trees were apparently carried in processions and the poor were allowed to plunder the fruits and baked goods before everyone began to dance. In essence this was a continuation of the pre-Christian "fruit trees," as they were called, which bore no candles.

Where the first tree stood is lost to the ages. But we can assume that these more or less random extant documents refer to something that was already in existence decades before. What is certain is the appearance of the trees in the trade guilds of the sixteenth century.

But even a bit earlier, tree felling must have become so prevalent that in 1494 the Strasbourg jurist and town clerk Sebastian Brant found it necessary to forbid the custom of cutting off pine branches at the New Year and bringing them home. In 1554 felling trees for Christmas was officially banned in Freiburg, in the region of Breisgau. In Upper Alsace, where trees were apparently more plentiful, a more lenient method of limiting the custom was attempted in 1561. Every citizen could take from the forest no more than "one pine in the length of eight shoes." It is clear that the custom was known and loved in Alsace and the surrounding regions five hundred years ago and more.

At this time—toward the end of the sixteenth century —appears an early form of a Christmas song that has since become a beloved standard. "O Tannenbaum," written by the evangelical composer Melchior Franck, was not used in the context of Christmas until 1824, when it was sung with lyrics by the Leipzig teacher Ernst Anschütz.

An image by the Weimar court copper engraver Carl Schwerdtgeburth, which he created for a children's book in the middle of the nineteenth century, shows Martin Luther with his wife, Katharina, his children, and his parents sitting beside a Christmas tree. Was this a cozy family gathering that actually took place as shown here? There is also an account of Luther walking alone in the forest one night and being inspired by the stars to place candles on a small evergreen tree. The church reformer lived until 1546, and it is known that he encouraged the celebration of Christmas, but the first confirmed Christmas tree in Wittenberg—Luther's hometown—did not appear until the eighteenth century. Family celebrations involving the Christmas tree are also a much more recent phenomenon. We now know that such celebrations did not take place until the end of the eighteenth century, in part because only then did bourgeois family life create the conditions for such an event. But history has limited power over popular perception. In fact, Schwerdtgeburth's image circulated so widely and was reprinted in so many publications that it took on a life of its own, and actually helped make the tree more popular among Lutherans.

Mythical Trees of Years Gone By

The search for the first Christmas tree is a quixotic quest. Trees have always been part of human life, both practically and symbolically. Rock art found near Bohuslän in Sweden depicts individual evergreen trees in addition to other motifs. Whether these drawings point to Bronze Age tree worship is uncertain. We do know, though, of the holy sun tree mentioned in ancient Indian texts: it shoots out of the ground at sunrise, grows so tall during the day that its branches touch the sun, then slowly grows smaller until, at sunset, it again disappears into the earth.

In the Edda—the ancient Norse epic—the world tree Yggdrasil symbolizes creation. In Uppsala, Sweden, according to old manuscripts, a holy evergreen yew tree stood near a temple dedicated to the Nordic gods. A spring is said to have had its source at the same place. Sun trees, world trees, and trees of life also thrive in legends of many Indo-Germanic peoples, remaining as vague traces in the collective memory. Greek mythology, too, is rich in examples of deified trees and humans transforming into trees. Trees, the largest members of the plant world, pervade human thought.

Think too of the beautiful fruits on the trees of Elysium, the garden of the gods, as well as the golden apples of the divine nymphs, the Hesperides. These apples were considered the finest jewelry and the most delicious of fruits. They were the food of the gods and were said to bestow immortality—which is why mortals were forbidden from eating them. A similar proscription is familiar from the book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, "for," God warns them, "in the day that you eat from it you will surely die." They eat, of course, and are exiled from Eden and burdened with mortality and all the other afflictions of the human condition. So prominent in the creation story is the forbidden fruit that it is easy to forget the other tree nearby in the garden, the tree of life. In Christian symbolism, this tree has been associated with the cross upon which Jesus died. It is seen as a symbol for communion with God, and in some later variants of the Bible stories, its fruits give immortality. According to some accounts, the forbidden tree and the tree of life are one and the same.

Outside the realm of myth—but nearly as fantastic a bearer of life—is the slender, tall palm tree, which can live to a hundred years and often bears a rich bounty of dates. It is well known in both the Occident and the Orient. The tree of the Holy Land and of Arabia is found persistently in Christian depictions of the stall in Bethlehem, implying great significance, for time has pruned all inessential elements from these stories. When the Bible was translated into modern European languages, many motifs from the environment of the biblical stories were adapted to the local conditions. In many paintings—for example, Lukas Cranach's Rest on the Flight to Egypt, which shows the Holy Family pausing on its way to Egypt—a conifer appears instead of the palm.

The wood wrought from trees is also found in the rituals of many cultures. It has been used for thousands of years in celebrations of the winter solstice—the so-called Yuletide—in northern Europe. As a sacrificial offering under many forms, it was the symbolic equivalent of the living tree. These rituals probably began as elements of a fertility myth. To honor the gods, worshipers set wood alight to scare away the spirits. They believed that at the solstice the sun took up a new life and began its fight against the forces of winter that shrouded everything in darkness. As the days began to lengthen, the sun flaunted its victory over winter. In time, these pre-Christian rituals came to be associated with the Christmas season, in particular the revels of Twelfth Night, on January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

In the Nordic Yuletide festival a whole log was set on fire, the Yule log. Parts of this custom are still found in a number of European countries, from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to Greece in the east. The Transylvanian Sax12ons in Romania maintained this tradition—also called the Christ wood (Christholz), yule clog, or yule block—for an especially long time. In France the wood usually came from a plum or cherry tree, or occasionally from an oak. Before the log was laid in the fire, it was doused with wine or oil, or covered in grains and foods. The residual charcoal was used as a medicinal remedy, while in other countries the ashes were spread over the fields in the holy nights before the winter solstice in the hope of ensuring a rich harvest.

The attraction of all things green, colorful, and glittering in the cold season is elemental. Green has long been considered the color of hope, and midwinter greenery was thought to radiate and summon vitality and fertility, to keep harm at bay. The custom of celebrating the changing year with greenery was already known among the Romans, who used bay branches. In the fourth century, Saint Ephrem the Syrian reported that houses were decorated with wreaths for the festival on January 6. Medieval sources mention evergreen branches, with sharp needles, fastened to the door of the house or hung in the home. Demons, witches, lightning, and disease—they believed—were powerless in the face of this life force.

The solstice evergreen, a freestanding tree usually found next to the village well, was valued in northern and central Europe, reminiscent of the maypole tradition and the raising of a tree to celebrate the harvest. The solstice evergreen was stripped of its bark and branches, except at the top. Sometimes this was later replaced by a new treetop, and the tree was then decorated with string, small figures, and blown eggs. Christmas and the New Year were both times of transition; they were full of joyful uncertainty and hope for the fertility of the people, the animals, and the fields. The tree had an established place in the life of the community—the girls of the village encircled it, singing and dancing around it. In Sweden such trees were called Julstänger. Sometimes these solstice evergreens were decorated with wreaths or rings of greenery.

The winter solstice has long been associated with mythical phenomena, in which ordinary observations are mixed with fantastic visions. In many stories, frostbitten trees and plants began to blossom at the coldest time of year. A text from 1430 includes an account of a "miraculous tree":

In the harshest and most disagreeable time of year, it bore apple blossoms the size of a thumb on the night of Christ's birth. For this reason many believers from Nuremberg and the surrounding areas would come by and keep vigil in order to see the truth for themselves.

One such winter blossom is the hellebore or Christmas rose, with flowers that are reminiscent of wild roses. In France it is called rose de Noël and is said to blossom out from under the snow on Christmas night. Church hymns also recall the flower:

    A spotless rose is growing,
    Sprung from a tender root,
    Of ancient seers' foreshowing,
    Of Jesse promised fruit;
    Its fairest bud unfolds to light,
    Amid the cold, cold winter,
    And in the dark midnight.

Christmas was considered a magical time in which the normal rules of everyday life—indeed, even the rules of nature—were suspended. According to one legend, Francis of Assisi went into the garden one winter's night and lay in a thorn bush to taste the suffering of Christ. Subsequently, roses were said to have mysteriously blossomed from the bush. Less mysteriously, in a custom dating to the thirteenth century, cuttings are made of deciduous trees—especially cherry, apple, lilac, plum, hazel, and linden—on December 4, the feast day of Saint Barbara, and brought into the warmth of the house until Christmas so that they may blossom. This practice is prevalent in Franconia, in northern Bavaria. A saying from the region goes, "Are there buds on St. Barbara? Then the blossoms will arrive before Christmas." In the nineteenth century it was common to put a small cherry sapling in a large pot in the corner of the room to await its blossoms.

Light was already an important element of the pre-Christian Germanic winter festival. Remember also the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, conducted solely by candlelight. To this day the Feast of Saint Lucy is celebrated in Norway and Sweden, a festival to honor the martyr whose very name means light. An old superstition states that demons and other harm could be staved off with light during the winter solstice. Candlelight, in particular, evokes the sun. Charlemagne forbade lighted trees because he considered them symbols of hedonistic rituals. But illuminated trees are common in other cultures: consider the holy lighted trees of India and Persia, the Maypole decorated with lights, the old Slavic wedding tree.


Excerpted from Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner Copyright © 2012 by Bernd Brunner. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Inventing the Christmas Tree....................1
Selected Bibliography....................95
Illustration Credits....................99

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