A Christmas tree provokes awe and delight. We understand the lighted tree as a central symbol of the Christmas season, but what are the roots of the tradition? Who first thought to bedeck a tree, to bring it inside? How and where did the local activity grow into a widespread tradition, and how has the Christmas tree travelled across time and continents?
The history of the Christmas tree starts in the wild and windswept forests of Northern Europe and ends in the tame Victorian countryside.
The origin of the Christmas tree is a mysterious pagan legend. To fully appreciate its history, one must understand the mystical importance coniferous evergreens held for the pagan Norsemen who inhabited the frigid and enchanted forests.
Pre-Christian pagans inhabited a land that they believed they shared with numerous gods, nature-spirits, and demons. When the seasons turned, 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, were believed to have some special power against the darker magic of winter because they were the only plants that stayed green throughout the year. Evergreen branches were brought indoors where their scent could freshen the dark and dank, medieval homes. The needles and cones would 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, Celtic and pagan civilisations throughout Northern Europe would celebrate and sacrifice to the Norse god, Jul (though pronounced and contemporarily recognised as “Yule”), and celebrate their Yule Tide Festival.
For thousands of years, the evergreen fir tree remained a feature of winter festivals. The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. In the annals of antiquity we also read about the great Druidic rites and the ancient Aryan and Teuton ceremonies – The oldest prototype of the Christmas tree is perhaps the celestial sun-tree of the Aryan races. According to the investigations of Prof. W. Schwartz, “…the rising sun appeared to the ancient Aryans as a great pillar of fiery light, like the trunk of a gigantic tree! The ‘sun tree’ was a universal custom of the European Aryans to burn torches and tapers around trees and fountains for purposes of divination”.
The most perfectly developed descendant of the ancient sun-tree, however, is the Welt-Esche or World-ash, described in the Edda, the book containing the religious teachings and traditions of the Teutons.
The world-ash was a gigantic evergreen, in whose branches were contained the dwelling places of men and gods, of giants and of dwarfs. Three mighty roots supported the trunk, which harboured the mysteries, an old seer and the three fates, or ‘Nornen’. Above, in the branches, the stag Eikthyner feeds upon the leaves, as does the year upon the endless length of time. A she-goat, Heidrun also browses among the branches, and her milk is the food of the gods and heroes. Higher up in the topmost branches the sun-eagle builds his eyrie and sings a song of life and death. Our earth, Midgard, is near the center of the tree, while Asgard, the home of the gods, is far above, near the top. They are all connected by the arch of the rainbow, the flaming bridge Bifrost, over which the gods descend to visit the abode of mortals.
In this whole idea of the world-ash we recognize one of the first attempts at a systematic conception of the universe, a conception which seemed to the wise men of that time as perfect and complete as the Copernican system now seems to us.
The chief festivals of the Teutons were those held at the summer and winter solstices, and the May festival. At the summer solstice (June 21) St. John’s tree was decorated and worshiped, at the May festival the May-tree, and at the winter solstice (Dec. 21), the fir-tree. The latter festival, coming at a time when the days begin to lengthen again, was a feast of rejoicing over the renewed growth and blossoming of the light-tree in the sky.
“Twelve sacred nights” for the old Teutons counted by nights instead of days, (hence the expression “fortnight”) was referred to as “Geweihte Nachte” and today developed into the German name: “Weihnachten”, Christmas!
This “sacred nights” festival (Weihnachtsfest), with all its poetic charm, had taken such deep root in the hearts of the German people, that even Christianity, in spite of its intense hostility to all heathen practices and festivals, was unable to crush it out of existence. The early Christians, however, soon began to recognise that they could give to the heathen festival a Christian significance, and thus help win the hearts of the heathen to the Saviour. St Boniface, an English missionary from Devon in the 8th century, brought Christianity to the Germans in the 8th century. In a pagan village he cut short their human sacrifice of a boy to the God Thor on an oak tree by taking up an axe and chopping down the oak. Growing in the roots of the felled oak was an evergreen. Tand the monk exhorted that this was the “little tree, a young child of the forest! Let this be the tree of the Christ-child, gather about it not in the wild wood but in your homes, there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but kindness and gifts.” . Hence the tradition was born of bringing an evergreen tree into our homes!
Christ was born the night of December 24th or the early morning of the 25th. That night could thus be truthfully called a sacred one, and the festival of the Christmas tree could easily be transferred from the 21st to that time.
In the course of the years, the Christian interpretation of the tree and its attributes was elaborately and beautifully developed. The fir itself, with its lights and fruits, became the symbol of Christ, who was the beginning of a new life in the midst of the wintry darkness of heathendom, the tree of life, the light of the world.
At a later time other and purely Christian symbols were introduced, the angels, the anchor, cross and heart, the star of the east, and the golden threads, called Lametta, which represent the hair of the Christ-child. The origin and significance of the tree in many families is often forgotten. The tree too often is overburdened with articles of virtue, or with glittering trash of all sorts, which bear no relation whatever to its poetic and religious character.
What, however, has not changed is the hidden strength that great fir trees have maintained over time, and in spite of many adaptations and beliefs, the same tree was chosen during the dark cold winter for thousands of years. No doubt this is partially due to its evergreen nature – or perhaps for its scent! It is no surprise that scientific notes on the odorous evergreen properties confirm that, indeed, botanical active constituents of the fir trees shield from bacteria and effectively purify the air!
Winter is undoubtedly associated with the scent of fir trees – and with some relief we take a breath of the odorous refreshing notes of the balsamic pine needles.
Artwork, Shizrazeh Houshiary on display in Tate Gallery from 01 December 2016.
The work, which focuses on the tree’s natural, eternal, qualities such as texture, shape, colour and smell, hangs upside down from the glass ceiling in the Millbank entrance, its gold leafed roots exposed and highlighting what is usually underground. Houshiary described her tree for Tate Britain as “taking earth back to heaven”. She says now, “I would like us to contemplate that the pine tree is one of the oldest species and recognise the roots are the source of its continued stability, nourishment and longevity. As the roots remain hidden, it is best to seek what is hidden rather than what is apparent. As a Buddhist monk wrote, ‘An old pine tree preaches wisdom’.”