The Legendary Christmas Tree
By Wendy Hughes
On Thursday 1st December 2016 the traditional Christmas tree lighting ceremony will take place in Trafalgar Square in London. It will be led by the Lord Mayor of Westminster including a band and choir, and followed by the switching of the lights, which for many signals the countdown to Christmas.
The tree has been an annual gift, since 1947, from the city of Oslo to the people of London for their support during the Second World War. At the base of the tree stands a plaque bearing the words:
The tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude
to the people of London for their assistance during the year 1940-1945.
The tree is typically a 50-60-year-old Norway spruce and generally stands over 20 metres tall and remains in place until just before Twelfth night of Christmas and is usually taken down chipped, composted and mulched.
The Christmas tree more than anything else has become the symbol of Christmas, not only in its native Germany but as far afield as Japan and the United States of America. It is also the subject of many legends which seek to explain either its origin or present appearance.
According to one legend a shivering child once knocked at the door of a poor woodcutter’s hut on a bitterly cold winter’s evening. The woodcutter and his wife took the child in, fed him, and gave him their warm bed to sleep in whilst they slept on a hard bench by the fire. The next day they found that the poor child had been transformed into an angel, dressed in gold. He told the couple that we was the Christ Child and as thanks for their kindness broke off a twig of a fir tree, telling them it would bear fruit every year, and so the first Christmas tree appeared.
Another legend from Strasbourg seeks to explain how the first lighted Christmas tree come into being. In an attempt to obtain some money, a small boy tried to sell a gardener two scraggy pine trees on the day before Christmas. The gardener took pity on him and gave him a gold coin for the trees, but threw them into a corner, but his children planted them behind the church. During the night mass the people in church saw a wonderful light coming in through the window, and rushed outside and where confronted with two huge pines, higher than the church with bright lights, like roses, burning on the branches. The man realised that the boy who sold him the pines was probably the Christ Child. Lights were also regarded as a protection, since light dispels darkness. However nowadays, a lighted Christmas tree has a Christian significance, the light symbolizing Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
According to another tradition, it was Martin Luther who decorated the first Christmas tree in Riga in Latvia in 1610. After marvelling at the wonder of a starry sky one
Christmas Eve, he dug up a fir tree, took it home and put candles on it to give his
children some idea of the heavens from which Jesus Christ came into this world and for
a long time the Christmas tree was regarded as being a Protestant decoration.
Some children today still think it is the Christ Child or St Nicholas who decorates the
tree, the tinsel being part of the angel’s hair, which got caught on the branches as they
flew away, after fulfilling the task of helping their master. Tinsel was invented in
Germany around 1610. Only silver was used at that time and machines had been
invented to pull the silver into wafer thin strips for tinsel. Later they attempted to use a
mixture of lead and tin to eliminate the tarnishing of the silver, especially with
candlelight. This attempt failed as the tinsel became too heavy and the branches started
to break under the weight. Therefore silver was used for tinsel making right up to the
Historically the origins of the Christmas tree seem no less complicated than the legends.
Some maintain that it dates back to Roman times when evergreen branches were used
to decorate homes during the feast of Saturnalia. Others believe that it is either
connected to the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, explaining why apples are a
popular decoration in Germany. The Paradise Tree featured as a decoration in the
Paradise Plays of The Middle Ages about the creation of man and the fall of Adam and
Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Some people claim that Boniface, an English monk who organised the Christian Church
in France and Germany, ‘invented’ the first Christmas tree in the eighth century. One
Christmas Eve as he was travelling around he came upon a group of pagans gathered
around an oak tree who were about to sacrifice a child to the god Thor. To stop the
sacrifice and save the child, Boniface felled the oak tree with one blow of his fist. In its
place grew a fir tree, and the saint told the pagans worshippers that the tiny fir tree was
the Tree of Life and stood for the eternal life of Christ
Glass baubles that adorn almost every Christmas tree were first made in Lauscha,
Germany, by Hans Greiner (1550-1609) when he produced garlands of glass beads and
tin figures that could be hung on trees. The popularity of these decorations grew into the
production of glass figures made by highly skilled artisans.
In 1840, the Christmas tree was known throughout Germany, but at that time it was
probably more common in churches than in private homes, and more popular with
Protestants than Roman Catholics. During the eighteenth century, apples nuts and all
kinds of sweets were the favourite decorations, but later specially produced small toys,
animals, birds, angles and instruments gained popularity. At is claimed that Lievan, a
German princess living in Britain had a Christmas tree put up for her children, and
Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert liked it and popularised the custom,
setting a fashion statement throughout Britain.