Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Something to Cherish

Earlier in the week I brought down from the attic my little artificial Christmas tree and set it up in the living room of my south Minneapolis home. My friend and housemate Tim (left) then helped my decorate it.

I've always appreciated and enjoyed Christmas trees – though even more so since moving to the U.S. when the time they're put up is cold and dark. Without doubt, the soft warm glow of a lighted tree conveys so much more here in the darkness of winter than it did for me as a child growing up in the glaring heat of an Australian summer! Of course, given that the tradition began in the northern climes of Europe, the symbolism is intentional.

I bought my Christmas tree in 2007, when I was living in St. Paul. It's one of those trees that has lights built into it, if you know what I mean. I discovered this year that a section of lights on my tree are no longer working. Thankfully, it's not that obvious, and my tree, as these photos attest, still looks lovely! Indeed, there's nothing more I enjoy doing late in the evening than to sit in the darkened room with a hot cup of herbal tea and just look at my little Christmas tree! Occasionally, I may have some music on in the background – Kate Bush's winter-themed album 50 Words for Snow, for instance, or the beautiful music of Loreena McKennit, or the other-worldly Sacred Spirit album.

More often than not, however, I just sit in the silence and stillness of the night. Invariably, this time becomes one of contemplation and prayer. It's a winter pastime I've come to cherish.

I find the origins and history of the Christmas Tree to be quite interesting, and so I share below Wikipedia's documentation of this origin and history. Enjoy!

The custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly the 15th century. It acquired popularity beyond Germany during the second half of the 19th century. The Christmas tree has also been known as the "Yule-tree", especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.

While it is clear that the modern Christmas tree originates in Renaissance and early modern Germany, there are a number of speculative theories as to its ultimate origin. . . . It is frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter rites, especially with the story of the Donar Oak and Saint Boniface.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, "The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime."

Alternatively, it is identified with the "tree of paradise" of medieval mystery plays that were given on 24 December, the commemoration and name day of Adam and Eve in various countries. In such plays, a tree decorated with apples (to represent the forbidden fruit) and wafers (to represent the Eucharist and redemption) was used as a setting for the play. Like the Christmas crib, the Paradise tree was later placed in homes. The apples were replaced by round objects such as shiny red balls.

Customs of erecting decorated trees in wintertime can be traced to Christmas celebrations in Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany and Livonia. The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guild halls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Latvia and Estonia), in 1441, 1442, 1510 and 1514, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Reval (now Tallinn) and Riga. On the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square where the members of the brotherhood danced around it. A Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 reports that a small tree decorated with "apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers" was erected in the guild-house for the benefit of the guild members' children, who collected the dainties on Christmas Day. In 1584, the pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow in his Chronica der Provinz Lyfflandt wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square where the young men "went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame."

After the Reformation, such trees are seen in the houses of upper-class Protestant families as a counterpart to the Catholic Christmas cribs. This transition from the guild hall to the bourgeois family homes in the Protestant parts of Germany ultimately gives rise to the modern tradition as it developed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

By the early 18th century, the custom had become common in towns of the upper Rhineland, but it had not yet spread to rural areas. Along the lower Rhine, an area of Roman Catholic majority, the Christmas tree was largely regarded as a Protestant custom. As a result, it remained confined to the upper Rhineland for a relatively long period of time. The custom did eventually gain wider acceptance, beginning around 1815, by way of Prussian officials who emigrated there following the Congress of Vienna.

In the 19th century, the Christmas tree was taken to be an expression of German culture and of Gemütlichkeit, especially among emigrants overseas. . . . In the early 19th century, the custom became popular among the nobility and spread to royal courts as far as Russia. Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg introduced the Christmas tree to Vienna in 1816, and the custom spread across Austria in the following years. In France, the first Christmas tree was introduced in 1840 by the duchesse d'Orléans. In Denmark a Danish newspaper claims that the first attested Christmas tree was lit in 1808 by countess Wilhemine of Holsteinborg. It was the aging countess who told the story of the first Danish Christmas tree to the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen in 1865. He had published a fairy-tale called The Fir-Tree in 1844, recounting the fate of a fir-tree being used as a Christmas tree.

In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced in the time of the personal union with Hanover, by George III's Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the early 19th century.

. . . The tradition was introduced to Canada in the winter of 1781 by Brunswick soldiers stationed in the Province of Quebec to garrison the colony against American attack. General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel, held a Christmas party at Sorel, delighting their guests with a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.

A woodcut of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, initially published in the Illustrated London News December 1848, was copied in the United States at Christmas 1850, in Godey's Lady's Book. Godey's copied it exactly, except for the removal of the Queen's tiara and Prince Albert's mustache, to remake the engraving into an American scene [left]. The republished Godey's image became the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America. Art historian Karal Ann Marling called Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, shorn of their royal trappings, "the first influential American Christmas tree." Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, "In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850-60 than Godey's Lady's Book". The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.

Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country's first Christmas tree: Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, while the "First Christmas Tree in America" is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816. In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821, leading Lancaster to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Other accounts credit Charles Follen, a German immigrant to Boston, for being the first to introduce to America the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, is the first to popularise the practice of decorating a tree with candy canes. In 1847, Imgard cut a blue spruce tree from a woods outside town, had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments and candy canes. The National Confectioners Association officially recognises Imgard as the first ever to put candy canes on a Christmas tree; the canes were all-white, with no red stripes. Imgard is buried in the Wooster Cemetery, and every year, a large pine tree above his grave is lit with Christmas lights. German immigrant Charles Minnegerode accepted a position as a professor of humanities at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in 1842, where he taught Latin and Greek. Entering into the social life of the Virginia Tidewater, Minnigerode introduced the German custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas at the home of law professor St. George Tucker, thereby becoming another of many influences that prompted Americans to adopt the practice at about that time.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Christmas Baubles
Out and About – December 2007
Out and About – November 2008
Out and About – November 2009
Out and About – November 2011
Photo of the Day – December 26, 2011

Photography: Michael Bayly.


Rick Notch said...

The "Christmas" tree has its roots in the Protestant heresy and should be rejected by faithful Catholics.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Too funny, Richard! So this must be the reason YOU never have a Christmas tree?! I mean, we all know what a faithful Catholic you are!

Terry Nelson said...

Very nice! My tree isn't up yet, but the garland and other trim is.

Michael J. Bayly said...

I hope you'll share photos, Terry!