December 24, 2021

History of the Christmas Tree

[source: Delong Farms]

Tradition and Victorian Craft Lore

The history of the Christmas tree is a rich religious genealogy of the ancient Nordic peoples of the windswept forests spanning Northern Europe, and the warm Victorian countryside of 19th century England. By evolving throughout the centuries from Norse pagan nature worship to Germanic Christian tradition and again to Victorian Christmas folklore, the Christmas tree finally found itself engendered within the contemporary Christmas icon of the Balsam fir Christmas tree. Though the Christmas tree today can be considered more the influence of Victorian craft lore, the spiritual forefather, a dark and haunting aged Evergreen, has his roots firmly fixed to the frozen soil of ancient Germanic mountain forests. The origin of the Christmas tree is a mysterious and timeless pagan legend.

The Norse Pagan History of the Christmas Tree:

To fully appreciate the history of the Christmas tree, one must understand the mystical importance coniferous evergreens held for the pagan Norsemen who inhabited the frigid and often enchanting forests of Northern Germany. This era of pre-Christian Germanic history can be characterized as a time as savage as it was beautiful, mystical as it was mysterious, and as warm hearted as it was cold and bitter in a frozen landscape. Pre-Christian Pagans inhabited a land that they believed they shared with numerous Gods, nature-spirits, and demons. A common example was the Norse worship of the Oak tree; its strong and long burning wood was a sign of the strength of the spirits that inhabited the Oak, and it was often used as a symbol of the Norse god chieftain, Odin.

When the seasons turned, however, and winter brought with it numerous evils and malicious spirits stalking the shadows of wintery forests, the Pagan peoples would turn to the aid and magic of any nature spirits that would help them. Plants and trees such as mistletoe, holly and evergreen, unlike the forementioned Oak tree, were believed to have some special power against the darker magics of winter because they were the only plants that stayed green throughout the year. During the winter, to shore their homes from malevolent winter spirits, Pagan Germanic peoples would hang wreaths and bushels of evergreens over their doors and windows, believing their spirit was enough to ward off winter evils. In many cases evergreen decor were brought indoors where their scent could freshen the dark, medieval homes of otherwise stagnant straw and thresh. The needles and cones would even be burned as a form of incense; its smoke and fragrance filling the home with the protective spirit-magic of the evergreen.

During the Winter Solstice, when winter was at its darkest and the days were the shortest of the year by the Germanic Lunar Calendar, Celtic and pagan civilizations throughout Northern Europe would celebrate and sacrifice to the Norse god, Jul (Though pronounced and contemporarily recognized as “Yule.”), and celebrate their Yule Tide festival. This is the tradition from which we have our Yule log, today. The Germanic practice, however, involved cutting down a massive hardwood log that was large enough to burn for twelve days of feasting and sacrifice, and served as a fertility symbol to both help with the coming of spring and prophesize its bounty. During the Winter Solstice, when winter had its strongest influence on the frozen landscape, Norse pagans would, by tradition, bring entire evergreen trees into their homes. These massive evergreens were called Yule trees, and it was believed that the spirits of the trees would inhabit their home and bless its inhabitants. This practice was as much Winter Solstice tradition as it was mystical protection from night-faring spirits during the darkest times of the year.

The Germanic Legend of Saint Boniface of Credition:

During the 8th Century, missionaries from the Holy Roman Catholic Church began to make their way North to what is now Germany and the Netherlands. One such missionary, who would become the saintly Bishop of Germany, was Boniface of Credition. Boniface, a stalwart and moral gentile, was quickly set aback by the pagan rituals of polytheism, nature worship, and human sacrifice. While many Germanic peoples readily accepted the Catholic faith, there were still some hardened tribes that even proved violently hostile in their resistance to Catholic missionaries such as Boniface. It would be in a single legendary act that Saint Boniface of Credition seemed to symbolically set the tone for the Holy Roman Catholic Church: instead of usurping the pagan faith completely with Catholicism, Boniface chose to shift their focus and also adopted the more desirable pagan beliefs and customs himself.

It is said that when Saint Boniface came across a human sacrifice at the foot of the Oak of Thor in Geismar, Boniface cut down the oak in a symbolic act of removing the older barbaric Celtic traditions. Pointing to an evergreen that was growing at the roots of the fallen oak, Saint Boniface said, “This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and guide.” In much the same way that the Holy Roman Catholic Church assimilated many other pagan customs and traditions to help with the converting of the Northern Germanic peoples, Saint Boniface accommodated the pre-existing Celtic beliefs in the mysticism of evergreens and incorporated it to help with a smoother transition for pagan peoples over to Catholicism.

In many ways, this legend of Saint Boniface of Credition would have helped with the incorporation of the Yule trees and Yule Tide evergreens of the Germanic Winter Solstice into the Roman's “Christ's Mass” celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus. The converted Germans who were celebrating Christ's Mass would have celebrated in much the same way as they did the Winter Solstice, save for many of their central traditions being more gentile. The evergreen trees that they brought indoors were now symbols of the holy trinity; the stars at the top serving as a symbol of heaven and God. Apples were hung from the branches that would later become Christmas decorations, symbolizing the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. This tradition would continue until the Victorian Era where not a single German household was complete at Christmas without a small, table-top “Tannenbaum” or Yule tree.

The History of the Victorian Christmas Tree:

While the Yule trees of Germany may have made appearances throughout Europe after being culturally transplanted from Germany, the Victorian “Christmas tree” hadn't made its popular Victorian appearance until 1848. With the marriage of Princess Victoria to her cousin, Prince Albert of Germany, the custom of the Christmas tree came with the new prince of England and was celebrated in Windsor Palace for the sake of the young royal family. Prince Albert had written, “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest (Albert's brother) and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than our used to be.” At this, the London Illustrated News published a woodcarving print of the young royal family at Christmas time with a decadently decorated Christmas tree in the December of 1848. With the widespread distribution of the illustration, within two years every home in England had an evergreen Christmas tree in their home.

An interesting attribute of the Victorian era and incidentally the Victorian Christmas, was the popular attempt to bring elements of the countryside into city homes during the holiday season. Thanks to the Victorian era's Industrial Revolution, a significant concentration of the nation's newly wealthy were living in cities. With this move away from country homes and villas, successful and independently wealthy alike quickly picked up where Prince Albert left off. In an attempt to recapture a quaint and warm image of the country side and the country homes they had left behind, Victorians had Christmas trees that were elegantly decorated with glass ornaments, silver tinsel, gold stars, and delicate candles that would glow over the children's Christmas gifts. Evergreen Christmas wreaths that were decorated with an array of dried berries, apples and ribbons were popular with the Victorians and would be hung on doors and given as gifts to loved ones for the holidays. In much the same way we associate the Victorian era with decadent crafts and decorations, it was the Victorian era that truly made Christmas trees and Christmas wreaths what they are today.

For the less wealthy and poor, the Victorian ear was the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution in another way. With it came the detached monotonies of factory labor and a harder, bleaker life in the cities. In much the same way they served the Pre-Christian Germans, evergreen trees, wreaths and garland began to spread as an “old country” symbolic defense against the harsh realities of winter in an industrialized 19th century city. Most importantly, evergreens were used as a symbol of the holiday season, and a time for the philanthropy and good will that the Victorian era bestowed on the celebration thanks to writers and poets such as Clement Clarke Moore (“A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “The Night Before Christmas,” published in 1823) and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol, published in 1843). Evergreen Christmas dรฉcor represented a shift in the emotional climate; away from the work houses and begging orphans, towards a warmer spirit of heart-felt benevolence and charity. Incidentally, the 'spirit' of Christmas is aroused from a Victorian Christmas tree in much the same way the spirit of the evergreen was enticed from a Yule tree in a pagan Germanic North.
[Picture above: Odin, the Norse god]

Prior to Christianization, the Germanic peoples (including the English; Old English geola or guili) celebrated a midwinter event called Yule. With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The leader of the wild hunt is frequently attested as the god Odin and he bears the Old Norse names Jรณlnir, meaning "yule figure" and the name Langbarรฐr, meaning "long-beard" (see list of names of Odin).

The god Odin's role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides (see Odin's horse Sleipnir), which was traded for reindeer in North America. Margaret Baker comments that "The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. … Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild became a leading player on the Christmas stage."

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