Wednesday, December 21, 2005

O Tannenbaum

One of my fondest childhood memories is going out with my father and my brother to pick out and cut down our Christmas tree. We fortunate enough to live on a farm filled with cedar trees, so it wasn't very hard to find one. We never took the best trees, leaving those to grow to adulthood. Instead we selected trees that would look pretty in the house, but probably would not make it if left in the pasture or the woods. My father was apparently born a conservationist.

The origins of the Christmas tree are largely unknown, although there are no shortage of claims as to the origin of the custom. Some look to the pagan religions of pre-Christian Europe for the origins of Christmas trees, while others look to Christianity for explanations of the custom. It is safe to say that most of these claims are largely apocryphal.

One of the most popular Christian explanations for the origin of the Christmas tree centres on St. Boniface (also known as Winfred), who lived from about 675 CE to 755 CE. According to legend Boniface cut down an oak (held sacred by both the Celtic and Germanic peoples) in front of some newly converted Christians. The oak stump then split into four pieces and a fir tree sprung up in its place. This seems unlikely to me, if for any other reason than the fact that evergreens may also have been held sacred by the pagan peoples of northern Europe (see below).

Another Christian explanation is that Martin Luther found himself impressed by a woodland that he cut down a fir tree, took it home, and decorated it. Given that Luther lived from 1483 to 1546 CE and the first reports of the Tannenbaum are from only a few decades later, this too seems unlikely.

A much more likely Christian explanation for how the Christmas tree originated may be found in the morality and miracle plays of the Middle Ages. Among the most popular of these dealt with Adam and Eve, and it was often performed on December 24. Central to the play was "the Paradise Tree" or "Paradeisbaum." In the summer this would naturally be an apple tree, but in winter they would simply use an evergreen decorated with apples and holy wafers. Eventually people started bringing evergreens into their houses at Yuletide and decorating, perhaps in imitation of the Paradise Trees of the plays. Supposedly in parts of Bavaria, trimmed firs are still called "Paradeis."

Of course, Christmas trees have been condemned as a pagan custom by many Christians. No less than Oliver Cromwell condemend many Yuletide customs as "heathen traditions (this perhaps explains why my mother's ancestors were Cavaliers...)." And not surprisingly, some have looked to paganism for an explanation for the origin of Christmas trees. Some look to ancient Rome for the origin of the Christmas tree, pointing out that they would decorate their houses with clippings from evergreen shrubs during Saturnalia and that they would decorate trees in honour of the god Bacchus. This explanation doesn't seem too likely to me, as the first reported Christmas trees occur in northern Europe in areas that never fell under the sway of Rome. Yet others look to the Druids, who reportedly held trees sacred, for origins of the Tannenbaum. This too is problematic as the first reported Christmas trees appeared in Latvia and Germany, not areas occupied by the Celts.

A more likely heathen explanation for the origin of the Christmas tree may lie in the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples themselves. From Roman sources we know that the Germanic peoples had holy groves where they would worship their gods. The Laws of the Lombardic king Luitprand from the 8th century CE condemns the practice of worshipping trees and springs. Now there is little evidence that the Germanic peoples actually worshipped trees and springs, although there are instances in ancient sources where they did leave offerings for gods and nature spirits at trees and springs. An instance of this may be seen in the Life of Barbatus (a 7th century bishop), in which the Lombards are said to hang a hide from a tree and then hurl spears at it as part of a religious rite.

Indeed, central to the cosmography of Norse myth is the World Tree, which either contains or supports all the Worlds. That the idea of the World Tree may have been found among other Germanic peoples may be seen in references to the Irminsul. It is first mentioned in the Annals of Frankish Kings from the 8th and 9th centuries. Archbishop Hincmar of Reims (who lived from 806 to 882 CE) later described precisely what the Irminsul was. It was a large tree trunk which the Saxons held sacred. He tells us that in Latin it was called the "Universal Column," as if it supported everything. Indeed, the word Irminsul would appear to mean exactly that in the Germanic languages. What is more, it is an apt description for the World Tree of Norse myth.

What is more, it is possible that the World Tree of Germanic myth was seen as an evergreen. In the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, the World Tree is described as evergreen, although it also has characteristics of fruit trees. In The History of the Bishops of Hamburg, Paul the Deacon describes a large tree that stood outside the temple at Uppsala, Sweden, which was green in both summer and winter. It may not be too far fetched to assume that in parts of Germany individuals may have continued to leave gifts at evergreen trees (standing in for the World Tree) long after they had been converted to Christianity. Eventually, they may have even started to bring such trees inside.

Indeed, it seems to me that the origins of the Christmas tree could be both heathen and Christian. On the one hand it seems to me that people may have continued leaving gifts at trees in Germany long after the conversion to Christiantiy. Indeed, it seems possible that people may have held some reverence for trees long after they became Christian. This could be born out by the central role that the Paradise Trees played in the moraltiy plays, which seems to be a bit out of proprotion to the position occupied by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. I guess I don't have to point out that the Paradise Trees were evergreens decorated with fruit while the World Tree of Norse myth may have been seen as an evergreen with characteristics of a fruit tree. On the other hand, it seems to me that the idea of bringing an evergreen in doors and decorating it probably does stem from the Paradise Trees of the morality plays. It could well be that the similarity between Christmas trees and Paradise Trees is due to more than just coincidence. And both seem to have largely been German in origin. At any rate, it seems possible to me that the Tannenbaum could have been a result of the confluence of ideas both pagan and Christian.

At any rate, it seems to me that we will never know the origins of the Christmas tree. We can only offer theories as to its origins. What we do know it that the custom is first reported in the 1510 CE in Riga, Latvia. In 1521 the German Princess Helene of Mecklembourg brought the Tannenbaum to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. Thereafter there are references to Christmas trees as being a custom among German families. The custom of the Tannenbaum was brought to America by German settlers and to England by Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert (originally from Germany). Despite their popularity today, there have been those who condemned the custom of Christmas trees. The preacher Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio became the first man to place a Tannenbaum in an American church in 1851. This act brought howls of protests from some parishoners, who thought it a pagan custom.

Regardless, the Christmas tree soon became a part of the American holiday celebration. Indeed, songs mentioning Christmas trees date back to the 16th century in Germany. Perhaps the most famous Christmas tree song of them all is indeed German. "O Tannenbaum" was written by Ernst Anschütz of Leipzig in 1824. Since then there have been dozens of carols either about or mentioning Christmas trees--"The Littlest Christmas Tree," "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree," and so on.

As an adult I celebrate Yule rather than Christmas (keep in mind I am not Christian...). And every year I put up a tree. Alas, these days it is an artificial one, although I still have fond memories of seeking out that special cedar that would occupy a central place in our living room. To me, it just isn't the Yuletide without a tree.

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