The Christmas Tree Story
The origins of the Christmas tree tradition extend into prehistory, to a time when our pagan ancestors used branches of evergreen and decorated trees in their winter solstice celebrations around December 21st. Similar traditions are to be found in the folklore of China, Rome, Egypt, Scandinavia, Europe and Britain. The druids in England and France worshiped the oak tree and decorated it to honour their harvest god. But, while the pagans revered the oak, the Christians chose the fir tree. It seems that, when St. Boniface was travelling through Germany in the eight century, he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to represent the Holy Trinity, much in the same way that St Patrick is said to have used the shamrock in Ireland. Not much has changed since then, with pagan festival celebrating the oak, while the Christians think of the fir as God’s tree.
However it is not difficult to see certain connections between Christian and pagan traditions. In 900 AD., the Church declared that Christ was born on 25th of December, only a few days after the winter solstice festival. This could be regarded as more than coincidence, just as the ancient spring equinox festival that worships the pagan god of fertility, Eastre, has become the Christian Easter. While the older druidic customs still survived, over subsequent century’s the Christian tradition flourished in all parts of Europe and indeed in most of the western world. But it is interesting to witness how one accommodated the other. While eggs and rabbits - symbols of fertility are an integral part of the modern Easter celebrations, the decorated tree take pride of place in most homes at Christmas. In Riga, Latvia, the first recorded Christmas tree was erected in a public place and decorated with paper flowers and fruit in 1510 combining both pagan and Christian cultures.
Around the same time in early 1500’s, Martin Luther was said to put the first candles on a Christmas tree representing the stars that shine even on the longest nights. From then on, the custom became wide spread in Germany. By 1700 German emigrants had introduced it to Pennsylvania and by the end of the century to Canada as well. Peter the great, introduced Russia to the custom in 1700 and it lasted for over 200 years until it was outlawed after the revolution of 1917. With the fall of Communism in 1992 it was restored but in the new year for the orthodox Christmas on January 6th.
Although the first Christmas tree recorded in Denmark was 1808, it wasn’t until 1914 that Copenhagen had its first officially erected tree in the Town Hall Square. This seems quite amazing when we consider that the Danes are the biggest producers of Christmas trees today. It was introduced into Britain in 1841 by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, but never rally became an established tradition until the idea was revived in the 1930’s. It seems that it was after this revival that the Irish people caught on to the custom, but not until we moved out of the very depressed 1940’s and 50’s when there was very little disposable income to spend on such luxuries.
For many years Irish people simply went into a local wood and cut a small conifer, or the top off a larger one. Happily, today there is a plentiful supply of professionally native grown Christmas trees, and people can spend lots of time in carefully selecting the one that suits their family. While the wonderfully fragrant noble fir replaced the earlier shedding Norway spruce in Ireland, this had now been more or less replaced by the Nordmann Fir. Alexander von Nordmann, a French botanist, did many growers a great favour when he discovered the tree to which he gave his mane in the Caucasus mountains in 1836, as it is far less difficult to grow than it’s cousin the Noble fir. Danish researchers have even managed to clone it and are now perfecting the system in order to guarantee a plentiful supply of perfect Christmas trees forever.
Researched and written by Joe Flynn