Music to accompany your holiday journey: https://timeslipsblog.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/musical-inspiration-christmas-music/
Additional Christmas posts:
Before we continue our journey back to the Saxons and Vikings, let’s take a break and try to answer the question of when and where you should or should not go if you are hoping to find a celebration that includes some version of a Christmas tree?
Of course in order to know that, you should know some history of this tradition?
Most historians and scholars agree on one of the origin stories of the Christmas Tree that we are familiar with. That story is of Martin Luther.
While it is clear that the modern Christmas tree originated during the Renaissance of early modern Germany, there are a number of speculative theories as to its ultimate origin. Its 16th-century origins are sometimes associated with Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther who is said to have first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree.
Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. One crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth.
This is the story that most people are familiar with as the origin of our beloved Christmas Tree. It’s history does go back a bit further than that. Martin Luther gets the most credit for introducing the tradition of the Christmas tree as we know it but there is, as usual, a deeper history that has gotten overlooked. What we need to consider is that Martin Luther should get the credit for the in door tree with lights on it, but not for the entire idea of the tree and it’s significance!
the symbolism of trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak and the popularized story of Saint Boniface and the conversion of the German pagans, in which Saint Boniface cuts down an oak tree that the German pagans worshipped, and replaces it with an evergreen tree, telling them about how its triangular shape reminds humanity of the Trinity and how it points to heaven.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
Alternatively, it is identified with the “tree of paradise” of medieval mystery plays that were given on 24 December, the commemoration and name day of Adam and Eve in various countries. In such plays, a tree decorated with apples (to represent the forbidden fruit) and wafers (to represent the Eucharist and redemption) was used as a setting for the play. Like the Christmas crib, the Paradise tree was later placed in homes. The apples were replaced by round objects such as shiny red balls.
Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. The Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and place evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.
Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. Our modern Christmas tree evolved from these early traditions.
In looking at the history of the Christmas Tree and Saint Boniface, what is interesting to note is that it and Saint Boniface lead us back to Germanic/Norse and early Saxon origins!
Saint Boniface (Latin: Bonifatius) (c. 675? – 5 June 754), born Winfrid, Wynfrith, or Wynfryth in the kingdom of Wessex in Anglo-Saxon England, was a leading figure in the Anglo-Saxon mission to the German parts of the Frankish Empire during the 8th century. He established the first organized Christianity in many parts of Germany. He is the patron saint of Germany, the first archbishop of Mainz and the “Apostle of the Germans”. He was killed in Frisia in 754, along with 52 others. His remains were returned to Fulda, where they rest in a sarcophagus which became a site of pilgrimage. Facts about Boniface’s life and death as well as his work became widely known, since there is a wealth of material available—a number of vitae, especially the near-contemporary Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, and legal documents, possibly some sermons, and above all his correspondence.
Norman F. Cantor notes the three roles Boniface played that made him “one of the truly outstanding creators of the first Europe, as the apostle of Germany, the reformer of the Frankish church, and the chief fomentor of the alliance between the papacy and the Carolingian family.” Through his efforts to reorganize and regulate the church of the Franks, he helped shape Western Christianity, and many of the dioceses he proposed remain today. After his martyrdom, he was quickly hailed as a saint in Fulda and other areas in Germany and in England. His cult is still notably strong today. Boniface is celebrated (and criticized) as a missionary; he is regarded as a unifier of Europe, and he is seen (mainly by Catholics) as a German national figure.
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.
One very interesting thought on all of this history, especially the portion surrounding Martin Luther’s introduction of the lighted indoor tree…Martin Luther is often referred to in terms of being most instrumental in the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation eventually gave rise to the Puritan movement, which banned the celebration of Christmas all together!
The early Protestant Reformation accepted the Christmas Tree as a counterpart to the Catholic Christmas cribs. This transition from the guild hall to the bourgeois family homes in the Protestant parts of Germany ultimately gave rise to the modern tradition as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In order to find something close to what you are used to as a “Christmas” Tree before the 1800s, you will most likely need to travel to areas of Germany where it was a popular tradition long before making it’s way to other parts of the world such as the British Isles or early America. As I mentioned, the early Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas.
The Christmas tree tradition most likely came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio.
But the custom spread slowly. The Puritans banned Christmas in New England. Even as late as 1851, a Cleveland minister nearly lost his job because he allowed a tree in his church. Schools in Boston stayed open on Christmas Day through 1870, and sometimes expelled students who stayed home.
If you travel to Estonia or Latvia in northern Germany during the renaissance era, 1450-1600, you will find the beginnings of your Christmas Tree tradition.
Customs of erecting decorated trees in wintertime can be traced to Christmas celebrations in Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany and Livonia. The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guildhalls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Latvia and Estonia), in 1441, 1442, 1510 and 1514, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Riga and Reval (now Tallinn). On the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square where the members of the brotherhood danced around it. A Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 reports that a small tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers” was erected in the guild-house for the benefit of the guild members’ children, who collected the dainties on Christmas Day. In 1584, the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow in his Chronica der Provinz Lyfflandt (1584) wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”.
If you wish to see a Christmas Tree in the British Isles, you will have plan your time travel trip for no earlier than about 1800, and then you would most likely see one if you by some means or chance find a way to be invited to spend the holiday with the Royal family at the time!
Although the tradition of decorating the home with evergreens was long established, the custom of decorating an entire small tree was unknown in Britain until some two centuries ago. At the time of the personal union with Hanover, George III‘s German-born wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced a Christmas tree at a party she gave for children in 1800. The custom did not at first spread much beyond the royal family. Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with it and a tree was placed in her room every Christmas. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote:
“After dinner… we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.”
After Victoria’s marriage to her German cousin Prince Albert, by 1841 the custom became even more widespread as wealthier middle-class families followed the fashion. In 1842 a newspaper advert for Christmas trees makes clear their smart cachet, German origins and association with children and gift-giving. An illustrated book, The Christmas Tree, describing their use and origins in detail, was on sale in December 1844. In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his 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 ours used to be”. A boost to the trend was given in 1848 when The Illustrated London News, in a report picked up by other papers, described the trees in Windsor Castle in detail and showed the main tree, surrounded by the royal family, on its cover. In fewer than ten years their use in better-off homes was widespread. By 1856 a northern provincial newspaper contained an advert alluding casually to them, as well as reporting the accidental death of a woman whose dress caught fire as she lit the tapers on a Christmas tree. They had not yet spread down the social scale though, as a report from Berlin in 1858 contrasts the situation there where “Every family has its own” with that of Britain, where Christmas trees were still the preserve of the wealthy or the “romantic”.
Their use at public entertainments, charity bazaars and in hospitals made them increasingly familiar however, and in 1906 a charity was set up specifically to ensure even poor children in London slums ‘who had never seen a Christmas tree’ would enjoy one that year. Anti-German sentiment after World War I briefly reduced their popularity but the effect was short-lived and by the mid-1920s the use of Christmas trees had spread to all classes. In 1933 a restriction on the importation of foreign trees led to the ‘rapid growth of a new industry’ as the growing of Christmas trees within Britain became commercially viable due to the size of demand.
As I mentioned earlier in this discussion, if you plan to spend your time travel holiday in early America, (I must note here, Crag na dun time travel currently has no travel packages available to this area, so how you plan to get there is entirely up to you!) you would be wise not to travel prior to about 1780 if you are looking for a celebration that might include some kind of tree… or any other sort of actual celebration of the holiday. The holiday was not widespread before this time and as I mentioned too, was banned in many areas.
Should you find a way to travel to this area and want the tree experience, your best bet would be parts of Pennsylvania or Ohio. You might actually have better luck if you travel further north to the Provence of Quebec!
The tradition was introduced to Canada in the winter of 1781 by Brunswick soldiers stationed in the Province of Quebec to garrison the colony against American attack. General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel, held a Christmas party at Sorel, delighting their guests with a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.
Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country’s first Christmas tree: Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, while the “First Christmas Tree in America” is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816. In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821, leading Lancaster to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Other accounts credit Charles Follen, a German immigrant to Boston, for being the first to introduce to America the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, is the first to popularise the practice of decorating a tree with candy canes. In 1847, Imgard cut a blue spruce tree from a woods outside town, had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments and candy canes. German immigrant Charles Minnegerode accepted a position as a professor of humanities at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1842, where he taught Latin and Greek. Entering into the social life of the Virginia Tidewater, Minnigerode introduced the German custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas at the home of law professor St. George Tucker, thereby becoming another of many influences that prompted Americans to adopt the practice at about that time.
I hope this information is helpful to those of you looking for the Christmas Tree as part of your time travel holiday!
Previous holiday posts: