25 December 2012

Why do we have Christmas trees?

The ornaments on Tony's tree have different memories for him and for me - some are from his childhood and marriage, and a few we have acquired together. Putting them onto the tree is quite a thoughtful time, often involving the telling of stories.

This year we wondered why people put up Christmas trees at all. Wikipedia sprang to help out, of course. Apart from pre-Christian references to winter greenery and eternal life, the custom dates back to the 15th century, when guilds in north Germany and Livonia put up trees in guildhalls, decorated with sweets, sometimes taking them outside to be danced around and then burnt. About the 18th century trees found their way into family homes, and the decorations were edibles - apples, nuts, dates. Wax candles to light the tree were expensive, and in its early years having a Christmas tree was a custom confined to the upper classes.

Edible decorations had a religious association: apples (the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve) and wafers (the Eucharist). Christmas trees came to (Catholic) south Germany rather later, as they were regarded as "Protestant", and the Vatican got its Christmas tree only in 1982,  instigated by Pope John Paul.

Christmas trees were brought to Britain by George III's German wife in the 1760s, but it took nearly a century for the custom to spread beyond the royal family. North America had a few Christmas trees by the beginning of the 19th century, and in 1850 this print appeared -
a reprint, without tiara and moustache, of Victoria and Albert's 1848 family Christmas.

Times of putting up the tree - and customs regarding taking it down - vary from country to country. Our family traditions mean we put it up very late. As a child in Germany, I remember not only the disappearance of my dolls at the start of Advent (to be returned, with new clothing, by the Christkind) but the first sight of the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, lit with candles, as the door to the room was opened by the actual Christkind - in white robes, looking rather like an angel - at age 2 or 3, it was magical.

After the October Revolution, Russia banned Christmas trees, but they were reintroduced in 1935 as a  New Year custom, entirely secular (getting back to the pagan relation to greenery) - the star of Bethlehem at the top became the Red Star. The other common ornament for the top of the tree is an angel. Our tree has an angel, of considerable emotional value, at the top -
Ornaments are stories unto themselves. I like the idea that the red balls are descendants of the apples put on early trees to represent the forbidden fruit.

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