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The Origin of the Christmas Tree by Carla Wenckebach 1898
IN all Christian lands, we find the charming custom of celebrating Christmas-eve by decorating a fir-tree with lights, nuts, apples, and little sugar figures, and surrounding it with gifts. In Germany, for instance, while the older people of the family are busily decking the tree, the children, in another room, are eagerly awaiting the coming celebration. Their youthful voices sound joyful and inspiring as they join in the favorite carol "Silent night! Holy night!" When at last the doors are opened, the children rush with glad shouts into the brilliantly lighted room. Before their delighted eyes stands the glittering Christmas tree. An angel hovers above it, with wings outspread as if in blessing, and among the branches rests the tiny figure of the sleeping Christ-child in the manger. Beautiful gifts are scattered among the branches, or placed on tables draped with white. The elders listen to the gleeful shouts of the children, while in their thankful hearts echoes again the song of the angels over the moonlit plains of Bethlehem, "Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, good-will to men."
What is the origin of this custom, with all its poetical associations and almost magical charm? Why do we deck the tree with golden apples, and nuts, and little sugar figures of horses, with stags, and eagles, and boars? And what is the significance of our other Christmas usages, such as decorating our rooms with holly and mistletoe, and burning the yule log? Why do the children hang up their stockings on Christmas-eve, and why does St. Nicholas play so important a role at this time? To answer these questions, we must search deep into the annals of antiquity, into the ancient Aryan "Lichtreligion" (light-religion), into the old Teuton ceremonies, the Druidical rites and the Roman Saturnalia. In these we must seek the explanation of all the various Christmas symbols and festivities, and we can then see how they have been illumined and transformed by the light of the religion of love.
The oldest prototype of the Christmas tree is the celestial sun-tree of the Aryan races. According to the investigations of Prof. W. Schwartz, the light of the rising sun appeared to the ancient Aryans as a great pillar of fiery light, like the trunk of a gigantic tree. The ascending rays, spreading in all directions, seemed like branches and twigs, while the clouds formed the leaves, and the sun, moon, and stars were the mysterious golden fruit. The light fleecy clouds, floating about in the sky, represented doves and swans, while the dark storm-clouds were huge black eagles, and the same dark clouds when gilded by the sunlight represented a golden fleece. The golden lightning-flash seemed a mystical flower, the celestial mistletoe. The coiling flash represented fiery snakes and dragons. The zigzag flash came from the antlers of a heavenly stag or goat. The rain of the thundershower came from springs in the sun-tree, and the low mutterings of the thunder were heavenly voices, prophecies uttered by divinities in the clouds.
An old tradition of India runs thus:—"In the center of the world is the tree Udetaba, the tree of the sun, which at sunrise shoots forth from the earth, and in proportion as the sun ascends towards the zenith, grows up into the air until its topmost branches reach the sun when at noon-day he stands high in the heavens; but thereafter it gradually diminishes with the declining day, and at set of sun, sinks back into the earth." The Talmud usually speaks of the "pillars of the dawn," or it likens the light of the rising sun to a growing palm-tree.
From this phase of belief, common to the Aryan peoples, have arisen countless traditions in which we find the tree of light, the "sun-tree," ever recurring under the most varied forms. We are reminded of the fabled tree in Colchis, on which hung the Golden Fleece, ever guarded by a sleepless dragon; of the golden-fruited tree of the Hesperides, also watched over by its faithful dragon; of the sacred oak at Dodona, and the fountain near by; of the olive tree on the Acropolis at Athens, and the neighboring fountain; of the plane-tree of Delphi, hard by the fountain of Castalia; of the many mythological carvings or sculptures, which represent a tree in the coils of a dragon or a serpent; of the wonder-bearing trees in many old fairy tales. It was a universal custom of the European Aryans to burn torches and tapers about trees and fountains for purposes of divination.
The most perfectly developed descendant of the ancient sun-tree, however, is the Welt-Esche or World-ash, Yggdrasil, revered by the Scandinavians. As described in the Edda, the book containing the religious teachings and traditions of the Teutons, the world-ash Yggdrasil was a gigantic evergreen, in whose branches were contained the dwelling places of men and gods, of giants and of dwarfs. Three mighty roots supported the trunk. In one of them is the spring Hwergelmir, in whose depths are hidden the mysteries of being and non-being. In the second is the spring of Mimir, with that wise old seer dwelling beside it. In the third is the "Urdbrunnen," by which the three Fates, or Nornen, sit silent and grave. Coiled about the roots area great dragon, Nidhoggr, and many smaller serpents, which are continually gnawing at the tree. They represent the element of destruction, of evil, whereas the evergreen typifies life, immortality. Above, in the branches, the stag Eikthyner, feeds upon the leaves, as does the year upon the endless length of time, while from his antlers flow streams of water into the spring Hwergelmir, in which all terrestrial streams have their source. Four other stags consume the buds, as the four seasons consume the days and hours. A she-goat, Heidrun, also browses among the branches, and her milk is the food of the gods and heroes. Higher up in the top-most branches the sun eagle builds his eyrie and sings a song of life and death. A little squirrel, Ratatwiskr, ("whisking on the branches") whisks back and forth between the eagle, and the dragon, Nidhoggr. He carries words of contention and hatred; for between the eagle, the bird of life,and the serpent,the agent of destruction, peace and friendship can never abide. Our earth, Midgard, is near the center of the tree, while Asgard, the home of the gods, is far above, near the top. They are connected by the arch of the rainbow, the flaming bridge Bifrost, over which the gods descend to visit the abode of mortals. In this whole idea of the world-ash we recognize one of the first attempts at a systematic conception of the universe, a conception which seemed to the wise men of that time as perfect and complete as the Copernican system now seems to us. Simrock declares that in profundity of speculative insight this ancient tradition has not its equal.
At times of great festivity it was a custom of the Teutons to decorate small trees with candles and place these earthly substitutes for the heavenly tree of light in and before their houses. An Icelandic myth of the mountain-ash, sacred to Thor, runs as follows: — "This is called the sacred tree, and it is related that once, on Christmas night, all its branches were found thickly covered with glowing lights, which even the winter wind could not extinguish, blew he never so lustily." These glowing lights symbolized the lightning, which in a thunder-shower made the light-tree look as if covered with candles, and which could not be extinguished even by the stormy winds.
The chief festivals of the Teutons were those held at the summer and winter solstices, and the May festival. At the summer solstice (June 21) the "Johannisbaum" (St. John's tree) was decorated and worshipped, at the May festival the May-tree, and at the winter solstice (Dec. 21), the fir-tree. The latter festival, coming at a time when the days begin to lengthen again, was a feast of rejoicing over the renewed growth and blossoming of the light-tree in the sky. It was celebrated during the "twelve sacred nights," for the old Teutons counted by nights instead of days, as the expressions "fortnight" and "sennight" still testify, and from these "sacred nights," "geweiheten Nachten," originates the German name "Weihnachten," Christmas.
According to the theory of Professor Schwartz, which is one of the most significant and interesting yet advanced, our own Christmas tree was originally one of the earthly substitutes for the celestial sun-tree. The fir stands for the tree itself. The lights represent the lightnings flashing overhead, and the golden apples, the nuts, and the balls, symbolize the sun, moon, and stars, or the gods they represented. It is owing to the quiet influence of old traditions that the confectioners and toy manufacturers make their little sugar and paper-machee figures of stags, horses, goats, swans, squirrels and eagles, and that the animals consecrated to the gods, or offered to them in sacrifice, are still hung upon the tree. Thus we still find there the ravens and wolves of Odin, the bucks of Thor, Freya's cats, and Freyer's
golden-bristled boar, with oxen, lambs, goats, fish, etc. On a true Christmas tree all these creatures appear, peeping out here and there among the green branches of the fir, while Nidhoggr, the dragon,is represented by strings of raisins or popcorn, coiled about the tree-trunk. In token of gratitude to the sun-god (worshipped as Odin, as Baldur or as Freyer), who was the dispenser of all blessings, the benefactor of humanity, there were offered up in sacrifice during the "geweiheten Nachten," countless boars, and stags, and horses. At the same time the people tried to gladden their fellow beings, especially the poor and needy among them, by the giving of gifts. This "sacred nights" festival (Weihnachtsfest), with all its poetic charm, had taken such deep root in the hearts of the German people, that even Christianity, in spite of its intense hostility to all heathen practices and festivals, was unable to crush it out of existence. The early Christians, however, soon began to recognize that they could give to the heathen festival a Christian significance, and thus help win the hearts of the heathen to the Saviour. According to popular tradition, Christ was born the night of December 24th or the early morning of the 25th. That night could thus be truthfully called a sacred one, and the festival of the Christmas tree could easily be transferred from the 21st to that time. In the course of years the Christian interpretation of the tree and its attributes was elaborately and beautifully developed. The fir itself, with its lights and fruits, became the symbol of Christ, who was the beginning of a new life in the midst of the wintry darkness of heathendom, the tree of life, the light of the world. This conception was supported by the following verses of scripture:—
In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Rev. 22:2.
I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. St John 8:12.
And the city had no need of the sun, neither of to moon to shine in it; for the glory of God did lighten it, and the lamb is the light thereof.
In the early hymns Christ is spoken of as the new apple, the nut, the heavenly bread. Allusion to the stag is found in Ps. 42:1,
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
The dragon is mentioned in Rev. 20:2, the dove in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the serpent in the story of the temptation in Paradise. Oxen and lambs remind us of the sacrificial animals, and the fishes suggest Jesus' miracle of feeding the five thousand. Besides this, the fish is the oldest symbol of Christ, used by the early Christians during the persecutions. It comes from the Greek word Ichthys, fish, which is formed by the initial letters of the Greek words Jesus Christos, Theu Yios, Soter (Jesus, Messias, Son of God, Redeemer).
The roses and lilies on the Christmas tree correspond to the flowers on the world-tree. The rose is the symbol of divine love, reminding us of the rose of Sharon, while the lily calls to mind the Angel of the Annunciation and Christ's saying "Behold the lilies of the field."
At a later time other and purely Christian symbols were introduced,—the angels, the anchor, cross, and heart, the star of the east, and the golden threads, called Lametta, which represent the hair of the Christ-child. Under the branches of the tree lies the babe in a manger, watched over by his parents, and surrounded by sheep and oxen. Contrast this scene, full of holy peace, with the scene under the world-ash, where the three Nornes restlessly spin the thread of time and vainly try to solve the problems of life. There the anxious question, here the triumphant solution. There the blind powers of fate, here the living fountain of faith. There stern necessity, here yielding love.
Since Christ was worshipped as the giver of all good and perfect gifts, the custom of making presents and of bestowing benefits on the poor, already so important a part of the heathen "Weihnachtsfest," was especially suited to the Christian character of the festival. In Germany, however, the gifts are not hung upon the tree, but are laid on tables placed about it.
It is greatly to be regretted that even in Germany, where on the 24th of December the Christmas tree glows every where,in the palace of the emperor and in the humble cottage of the laborer, the origin and significance of the tree in many families is forgotten. The tree too often is overburdened with articles of vertu, or with glittering trash of all sorts, which bear no relation whatever to its poetic and religious character. The true Christmas tree is not a mere show, a shining plaything decorated for the momentary amusement of children. It is a sublime symbol of the soul-life of the Germanic people for a thousand years. Illumined by the Star of Bethlehem, it commemorates the Saviour's birth, and the opening of the gates to the heavenly Kingdom of light above. It recalls the jubilant words of prophecy,
Arise, Shine, for the light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.