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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #105 on: December 15, 2009, 01:07:40 pm »

There is a pretty story about the institution of the Weihnachtsbaum by Martin Luther: how, after wandering one Christmas Eve under the clear winter sky lit by a thousand stars, he set up for his children a tree with countless candles, an image of the starry heaven whence Christ came down. This, however, belongs to the region of legend; the first historical mention of the Christmas-tree is found in the notes of a certain Strasburg citizen of unknown name, written in the year 1605. “At Christmas,” he writes, “they set up fir-trees in the parlours at Strasburg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, &c.” 12-3

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #106 on: December 15, 2009, 01:07:52 pm »

We next meet with the tree in a hostile allusion by a distinguished Strasburg theologian, Dr. Johann Konrad Dannhauer, Professor and Preacher at the Cathedral. In his book, “The Milk of the Catechism,” published about the middle of the seventeenth century, he speaks of “the Christmas- or fir-tree, which people set up in their houses, hang with dolls and sweets, and afterwards shake and deflower.” “Whence comes the custom,” he says, “I know not; it is child's play.... Far better were it to point the children to the spiritual cedar-tree, Jesus Christ.” 12-4

In neither of these references is there any mention of candles—the p. 266 most fascinating feature of the modern tree. These appear, however, in a Latin work on Christmas presents by Karl Gottfried Kissling of the University of Wittenberg, written in 1737. He tells how a certain country lady of his acquaintance set up a little tree for each of her sons and daughters, lit candles on or around the trees, laid out presents beneath them, and called her children one by one into the room to take the trees and gifts intended for them. 12-5

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #107 on: December 15, 2009, 01:08:12 pm »

With the advance of the eighteenth-century notices of the Weihnachtsbaum become more frequent: Jung Stilling, Goethe, Schiller, and others mention it, and about the end of the century its use seems to have been fairly general in Germany. 12-6 In many places, however, it was not common till well on in the eighteen hundreds: it was a Protestant rather than a Catholic institution, and it made its way but slowly in regions where the older faith was held. 12-7 Well-to-do townspeople welcomed it first, and the peasantry were slow to adopt it. In Old Bavaria, for instance, in 1855 it was quite unknown in country places, and even to-day it is not very common there, except in the towns. 12-8 “It is more in vogue on the whole,” wrote Dr. Tille in 1893, “in the Protestant north than in the Catholic south,” 12-9 but its popularity was rapidly growing at that time.

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« Reply #108 on: December 15, 2009, 01:08:26 pm »

A common substitute for the Christmas-tree in Saxony during the nineteenth century, and one still found in country places, was the so-called “pyramid,” a wooden **** adorned with many-coloured paper and with lights. These pyramids were very popular among the smaller bourgeoisie and artisans, and were kept from one Christmas to another. 12-10 In Berlin, too, the pyramid was once very common. It was there adorned with green twigs as well as with candles and coloured paper, and had more resemblance to the Christmas-tree. 12-11 Tieck refers to it in his story, “Weihnacht-Abend” (1805). 12-12

Pyramids, without lights apparently, were known in England before 1840. In Hertfordshire they were formed of gilt evergreens, apples, and nuts, and were carried about just before Christmas for presents. In Herefordshire they were known at the New Year. 12-13

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« Reply #109 on: December 15, 2009, 01:08:39 pm »

p. 267 The Christmas-tree was introduced into France in 1840, when Princess Helene of Mecklenburg brought it to Paris. In 1890 between thirty and thirty-five thousand of the trees are said to have been sold in Paris. 12-14

In England it is alluded to in 1789, 12-15 but its use did not become at all general until about the eighteen-forties. In 1840 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a Christmas-tree, and the fashion spread until it became completely naturalized. 12-16 In Denmark and Norway it was known in 1830, and in Sweden in 1863 (among the Swedish population on the coast of Finland it seems to have been in use in 1800). 12-17 In Bohemia it is mentioned in 1862. 12-18 It is also found in Russia, the United States, Spain, Italy, and Holland, 12-19 and of course in Switzerland and Austria, so largely German in language and customs. In non-German countries it is rather a thing for the well-to-do classes than for the masses of the people.

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #110 on: December 15, 2009, 01:08:52 pm »

The Christmas-tree is essentially a domestic institution. It has, however, found its way into Protestant churches in Germany and from them into Catholic churches. Even the Swiss Zwinglians, with all their Puritanism, do not exclude it from their bare, white-washed fanes. In the Münsterthal, for instance, a valley of Romonsch speech, off the Lower Engadine, a tree decked with candles, festoons, presents, and serpent-squibs, stands in church at Christmas, and it is difficult for the minister to conduct service, for all the time, except during the prayers, the people are letting off fireworks. On one day between Christmas Eve and New Year there is a great present-giving in church. 12-20

In Munich, and doubtless elsewhere, the tree appears not only in the church and in the home, but in the cemetery. The graves of the dead are decked on Christmas Eve with holly and mistletoe and a little Christmas-tree with gleaming lights, a touching token of remembrance, an attempt, perhaps, to give the departed a share in the brightness of the festival. 12-21

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« Reply #111 on: December 15, 2009, 01:09:03 pm »

The question of the origin of Christmas-trees is of great interest. Though their affinity to other sacraments of the p. 268 vegetation-spirit is evident, it is difficult to be certain of their exact ancestry. Dr. Tille regards them as coming from a union of two elements: the old Roman custom of decking houses with laurels and green trees at the Kalends of January, and the popular belief that every Christmas Eve apple and other trees blossomed and bore fruit. 12-22

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« Reply #112 on: December 15, 2009, 01:09:16 pm »

Before the advent of the Christmas-tree proper—a fir with lights and ornaments often imitating and always suggesting flowers and fruit—it was customary to put trees like cherry or hawthorn into water or into pots indoors, so that they might bud and blossom at New Year or Christmas. 12-23 Even to-day the practice of picking boughs in order that they may blossom at Christmas is to be found in some parts of Austria. In Carinthia girls on St. Lucia's Day (December 13) stick a cherry-branch into wet sand; if it blooms at Christmas their wishes will be fulfilled. In other parts the branches—pear as well as cherry—are picked on St. Barbara's Day (December 4), and in South Tyrol cherry-trees are manured with lime on the first Thursday in Advent so that they may blossom at Christmas. 12-24 The custom may have had to do with legendary lore about the marvellous transformation of Nature on the night of Christ's birth, when the rivers ran wine instead of water and trees stood in full blossom in spite of ice and snow. 12-25

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« Reply #113 on: December 15, 2009, 01:09:34 pm »

In England there was an old belief in trees blossoming at Christmas, connected with the well-known legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea. When the saint settled at Glastonbury he planted his staff in the earth and it put forth leaves; moreover it blossomed every Christmas Eve. Not only the original thorn at Glastonbury but trees of the same species in other parts of England had this characteristic. When in 1752 the New Style was substituted for the Old, making Christmas fall twelve days earlier, folks were curious to see what the thorns would do. At Quainton in Buckinghamshire two thousand people, it is said, went out on the new Christmas Eve to view a blackthorn which had the Christmas blossoming habit. As no sign of buds was visible they agreed that the new Christmas could not be right, and refused to keep it. At Glastonbury itself nothing p. 269 happened on December 24, but on January 5, the right day according to the Old Style, the thorn blossomed as usual. 102 12-26

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« Reply #114 on: December 15, 2009, 01:09:47 pm »

Let us turn to the customs of the Roman Empire which may be in part responsible for the German Christmas-tree. The practice of adorning houses with evergreens at the January Kalends was common throughout the Empire, as we learn from Libanius, Tertullian, and Chrysostom. A grim denunciation of such decorations and the lights which accompanied them may be quoted from Tertullian; it makes a pregnant contrast of pagan and Christian. “Let them,” he says of the heathen, “kindle lamps, they who have no light; let them fix on the doorposts laurels which shall afterwards be burnt, they for whom fire is close at hand; meet for them are testimonies of darkness and auguries of punishment. But thou,” he says to the Christian, “art a light of the world and a tree that is ever green; if thou hast renounced temples, make not a temple of thy own house-door.” 12-27

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« Reply #115 on: December 15, 2009, 01:09:59 pm »

That these New Year practices of the Empire had to do with the Weihnachtsbaum is very possible, but on the other hand it has closer parallels in certain folk-customs that in no way suggest Roman or Greek influence. Not only at Christmas are ceremonial “trees” to be found in Germany. In the Erzgebirge there is dancing at the summer solstice round “St. John's tree,” a pyramid decked with garlands and flowers, and lit up at night by candles. 12-28 At midsummer “in the towns of the Upper Harz Mountains tall fir-trees, with the bark peeled off their lower trunks, were set up in open places and decked with flowers and eggs, which were painted yellow and red. Round these trees the young folk danced by day and the old folk in the evening”; 12-29 while on Dutch ground in Gelderland and Limburg at the beginning of May trees were adorned with lights. 12-30

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« Reply #116 on: December 15, 2009, 01:10:14 pm »

Nearer to Christmas is a New Year's custom found in some p. 270 Alsatian villages: the adorning of the fountain with a “May.” The girls who visit the fountain procure a small fir-tree or holly-bush, and deck it with ribbons, egg-shells, and little figures representing a shepherd or a man beating his wife. This is set up above the fountain on New Year's Eve. On the evening of the next day the snow is carefully cleared away and the girls dance and sing around the fountain. The lads may only take part in the dance by permission of the girls. The tree is kept all through the year as a protection to those who have set it up. 12-31

In Sweden, before the advent of the German type of tree, it was customary to place young pines, divested of bark and branches, outside the houses at Christmastide. 12-32 An English parallel which does not suggest any borrowing from Germany, was formerly to be found at Brough in Westmoreland on Twelfth Night. A holly-tree with torches attached to its branches was carried through the town in procession. It was finally thrown among the populace, who divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one inn, and the other, to a rival hostelry. 12-33 We have here pretty plainly a struggle of two factions—perhaps of two quarters of a town that were once separate villages—for the possession of a sacred object. 103

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« Reply #117 on: December 15, 2009, 01:10:31 pm »

We may find parallels, lastly, in two remote corners of Europe. In the island of Chios—here we are on Greek ground—tenants are wont to offer to their landlords on Christmas morning a rhamna, a pole with wreaths of myrtle, olive, and orange leaves bound around it; “to these are fixed any flowers that may be found—geraniums, anemones, and the like, and, by way of further decoration, oranges, lemons, and strips of gold and coloured paper.” 104 12-34 Secondly, among the Circassians in the early half of the nineteenth century, a young pear-tree used to be carried into each house at an autumn festival, to the sound of music and joyous cries. It was covered with candles, and a cheese was fastened to its top. Round about it they ate, drank, and sang. Afterwards it was p. 271 removed to the courtyard, where it remained for the rest of the year. 12-36

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« Reply #118 on: December 15, 2009, 01:10:48 pm »

Though there is no recorded instance of the use of a tree at Christmas in Germany before the seventeenth century, the Weihnachtsbaum may well be a descendant of some sacred tree carried about or set up at the beginning-of-winter festival. All things considered, it seems to belong to a class of primitive sacraments of which the example most familiar to English peoples is the May-pole. This is, of course, an early summer institution, but in France and Germany a Harvest May is also known—a large branch or a whole tree, which is decked with ears of corn, brought home on the last waggon from the harvest field, and fastened to the roof of farmhouse or barn, where it remains for a year. 12-37 Mannhardt has shown that such sacraments embody the tree-spirit conceived as the spirit of vegetation in general, and are believed to convey its life-giving, fructifying influences. Probably the idea of contact with the spirit of growth lay also beneath the Roman evergreen decorations, so that whether or not we connect the Christmas-tree with these, the principle at the bottom is the same.

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« Reply #119 on: December 15, 2009, 01:11:09 pm »

Certain Christian ideas, finally, besides that of trees blossoming on the night of the Nativity, may have affected the fortunes of the Christmas-tree. December 24 was in old Church calendars the day of Adam and Eve, the idea being that Christ the second Adam had repaired by His Incarnation the loss caused by the sin of the first. A legend grew up that Adam when he left Paradise took with him an apple or sprout from the Tree of Knowledge, and that from this sprang the tree from which the Cross was made. Or it was said that on Adam's grave grew a sprig from the Tree of Life, and that from it Christ plucked the fruit of redemption. The Cross in early Christian poetry was conceived as the Tree of Life planted anew, bearing the glorious fruit of Christ's body, and repairing the mischief wrought by the misuse of the first tree. We may recall a verse from the “Pange, lingua” of Passiontide:—

“Faithful Cross! above all other,


One and only noble tree!p. 272


None in foliage, none in blossom,


None in fruit thy peer may be:


Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!


Sweetest weight is hung on thee.”

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