It doesn’t require an expert on folklore to recognize the Christmas holidays as some deeply rooted religious festivity. The very reason already in its name – celebrating the birth of Christ, who – doesn’t need an expert either to perceive this – is a pretty central figure in Christian religion, 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 recognize 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 about that other symbol of the season? Those richly adorned trees 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 at the same time that the early church seemed to have been not too fond of glittering trees all covered in Christmas decoration. But where does this tradition then come from? 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) – from where it spread around the world – until this day being the centre if any good German Christmassy living room. But it’s deeper roots seem to be buried in history. There are a lot of stories, yet 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 helped accelerating the acceptance of this then new religion. Yet, 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. 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. This does somehow suggest that there already was established some tradition of decorating trees for Christmas season 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 his 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 convinced Eve to have some snack). 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.
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. Yet I did not even start with the strange and mysterious ‘Christmas Cucumber’ among the richness of Christmas 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 enquiry over mulled wine and Christmas cookies. For now, I wish you happy holidays and some splendid specimen of a tree. Merry Christmas.
About Jens: An archaeologist based in Berlin who just happens to travel a bit here and there – for field work en route between Scandinavia and the Middle East, anywhere else just for the sake of travelling. Still not accepting he might a bit late for the ‘golden age’ of exploration, Jens sets out to journeys reaching remote destinations in pursuit of sights, sites, and answers at any given opportunity. He never leaves without journal and pencil, rarely is seen without his trusty dusty hat, and finds a good excuse for some well-crammed pipe with a view whenever necessary.