The Yule and Christmas Tree wonder
In the social media I wonder some people are asking about Christmas tree origins and traditions.
It seems, like all of today’s Christmas traditions, the Christmas tree is a collection of images that were created in the heydays of the first mass print productions. The new industry of Victorian printing companies were very creative in firing the imagination of the public into finding reasons to buy their printed products. Their most successful campaign was to introduce jollyness into Christmas by collecting fragments of symbols of ancient traditions and packaging them together in their graphics that supported their jolly verses printed on cards.
The amazing response was the people wanting to re-enact the images of these Christmas cards by surrounding themselves with nativity scenes, holly, ivy, mistletoe, visits by Santa moved from early December to Christmas day, presents under the tree, decorations on the tree, stockings or shoes full or presents, tinsel, angel or fairy on the tree top and the wishing of snow on Christmas day to build a jolly snowman and play with a sledge. These and more, fragments of traditions ancient and even quite modern of their time, sewn together to create a new collection of jolly celebration that we have shared since Victorian times until now through Europe and where Europeans emigrated to such as USA, Australia, New Zealand and so forth.
Much of this collection of traditions originated in Germany with Britain soon catching on after Britain’s Queen Victoria married Germany’s Prince Albert who brought these traditions to Britain and with his Royal influence inspired the country to Celebrate Christmas in the same way, and helped the country’s printers become prosperous. Whether Victoria was amused by this, we will never know.
As Martin Luther walked
The likely origin of the current Christmas tree custom is likely to have come from a story of Martin Luther who, in the early 1500s, is said to have been walking outside at night looking for inspiration for a Christmas Day sermon. He was taken by an image of stars twinkling between the branches of a pine tree which he believed was a perfect imagery of Christ coming from Heaven to bring light to the Earth. He is said to have chopped down, or uprooted a young tree, took it home, connected candles with wire and lit them to re-create that image. I suspect he re-enacted the same in church to inspire passion and belief in his sermon. It is likely his congregation re-enacted that image in their own homes to welcome the light of Christ and this idea spread through Germany and maybe beyond.
The traditions certainly exploded around Britain after the printed newspapers distributed an illustration of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children with presents around a spruce tree at Windsor Castle. This would have been one of the first illustrations ever printed by newspapers.
and St. Boniface converted
An earlier story is from the time of St. Boniface, a British monk. The tale is that he visited Geismar in Germany, around 720 AD, to convince druids there that the Oak tree is not sacred. How things had changed as in the 400s AD Christian monks still honoured the Oak. To prove his point he cut down an oak tree which crushed and killed every shrub and tree it fell on except a small young fir tree. He declared this to be a sign and ordered that the fir tree be known as the “Tree Of The Christ Child”. From then on the people of the monastic cities and then the villages planted fir trees on Christmas day. Of course, this is a bard’s tale but I am sure there is plenty of truth in this story. It may well be that Martin Luther did not chop down a tree but uprooted and potted one of these Christmas day plantings.
These two stories may explain the introduction of the spruce, fir, pine and other evergreen trees into our Christmas celebrations, but does not provide the complete story of how we “dress” them today.
One intriguing “essential” set of ornaments, second to the lights, are the baubles.
They seem to have come to us from China along with Christmas crackers, a subject of another blog, maybe next year. But what do these baubles represent?
Regular readers and people who know me will know of my passion for folk drama. Before printers entered developing the lucrative market of Christmas card making they experimented with publishing the scripts of Mummer’s Plays for folks to get together and perform for fun around Christmas. For some time, these folk drama play rituals were for the Samhain, Halloween. Scotland continued to ignore the Mummer’s tradition while they continued their similar Guisers tradition, though Ireland developed their Straw Boys tradition with straw costumes for St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas.
The origin of these plays were more solemn ritual plays, Miracle plays, used to tell the miracles of Christ in a way that their audience would understand. What was this “way” and why? By oral legend it is told that people of ancient times would perform stories told to them by bards through merging them with their ritual traditions at sacred places. This may well have been a radical creative act by the young people of some ancient time.
One of the stories that have emerged from the deepest ancient times, I suspect from Iran, is the story of the “Paradise Tree”
Before man was on this earth the astrological cycle, of the connected flow of life, was represented by 10 signs. “When the spirit of man descended to earth it changed the flow by separating one of the 10 components and creating a cycle of 12 parts. The decent of man, that I feel is falsely termed “fall of man” was portrayed by a tree, the “tree of life”. The astrological sign of Libra was once portrayed by the symbol of a tree of apples, as the tree of life. The split components became Scorpio and Virgo, male and female, serpent and virgin, standing each side of this tree of life. The snake offering an apple inspired the union of serpent and virgin, new life was seeded, the commencement of physical man on earth began and the face and balance of the earth has changed since.
There is a choice of half glass empty or half glass interpretation of this tale being either viewing as a sin to change god’s existence before man or a gift of life for men on earth. A later attempt to balance this imagery was to introduce the image of the tree of life as a sacred T cross from which 13 apples hung, one for each moon cycle, but as one apple was for the pivot of the T it left 6 apples each side to represent the 12 signs or later the 12 months. That T cross evolved as a sign of balance, hence why the Libra sign today is scales in balance.
So a sacred play developed and changed over centuries to tell of the the tale of Adam and Eve and the temptation of the snake and only you can interpret if the tale is about sin or creation but the play always ended with the imagery of balance, forgiveness and unity. This was a tale for Samhain, the time when the snake shed its skin to let go of the old and live with the new without breaking the cycle of life.
Some as these sacred and guising plays moved into mumming for Christmas so did the image of the Paradise tree move to Christmas too.
Within Yule and Solstice time there was a reverence for evergreen trees and their ability to sustain and carry life through the darkest days of the northern hemisphere. Having this evergreen in the home was, and still is believed, to share the spirit of life for survival through the rest of winter. For the small evergreen tree, brought into the home, to be dressed with apples was also believed to re-enact the Paradise Tree and ensure new life to come through the remaining window. Thanks to influence from China, where the tale of the Paradise Tree has moved east, their baubles arrived to replace the apples on our Christmas Trees.
What about the chocolates and other goodies hanging from the tree?
This started with hanging small bags of food items like nuts, and later, small baked items, and even later when sugar arrived, small candies. Useful things would be hung too like small tools such as small knives. I bet everyone loved to visit the blacksmith’s Christmas tree! All of this was to symbolise the “tree of life” giving its living spirit and good health through the gifts that can be shared at Christmas time. Later this was symbolised as the image of the Christ Child showing love through gifts, and it was this interpretation that eventually allowed acceptance of the Christmas Tree tradition in Puritan USA, along with the Martin Luther story.
Finally, what about the star, angel and fairy on the top?
Clues to this come from an old German tradition of bending of four or more fir or pine trees to form a pyramid or cone to form a shelter. Within this shelter the nativity scene was created and lighted candles placed on the top of the tree shelter.
Early Christmas card printings emphasised the shape of the tree being pyramid with the light on the top being a Star of David. Interestingly, the cranberry sauce now served with the Christmas Day meal used to be, and still is in Scotland, made with rowan berries. Rowan was always regarded as one of the trees of protection in ancient times, along with holly, hawthorn, apples, and roses. Rowan was “queen” of them all and next time you see rowan berries look underneath and you may be very surprised at what you see there, under every berry! Rowan sauce is to add life and light to a meal at this darkest time.
In rural Ireland, especially in the north west, an important figure at Christmas time is Brigid, Bhride, the midwife.
When we visit our local Carrowkeel cairns I share the story of from about 3000 BC until around 1500 BC when the constellation of Cygnus, the swan, an imagery of Brigid, and also a constellation of stars that form a crucifix, hosted the north star and was head of the Milky Way that looked like a stairway of stars coming down to earth. Check out an astronomy software and date it to this time to find out for yourself.
These cairns were family “mangers” of the flow of life, place were ancient families accepted life gifted to them for new births on earth, and passed life on after its time on earth was done. Earth was seen as a small circle as part of a larger circle of life. The vision of Cygnus and the flow of the milky way must have been powerful imagery to this faith.
Perhaps added to this is the pyramid stone in the highest cairn that is aligned to Croagh Patrick mountain in the distance which looks like a pyramid on the horizon on a clear day.
Somehow, I feel that it is these ancient ways with the imagery of Bhride, Brigid, later passed on into the image of angels and even through folklore onto the fairies that led to the angel or fairy replacing the star on our sacred Christmas and Yule trees.
The Christian Nativity story is a beautiful story of life and light coming to earth through the sacred space of the manger. Every faith seems to be centred by a story of sacred space where light and life arrives.
So three days after the winter solstice when the sun of the northern hemisphere turns to increase the light of our days, here’s a toast to the sacred space within our Christmas and Yule Trees for allowing its light and life to bless our sacred homes.
There are many more tales of our beloved Christmas trees.
Maybe I will tell more next year such as the hanging upside down traditions, the importance of the tree to the masons who built the earliest Christian churches and its connection to the image Green Man.
Also next year our live willow cairn should have grown and formed to provide a manger for all at this time. Not limited to the imagery of Joseph, Mary and the life child but any imagery of faith where the two worlds of men and women merge fire and water to bring new life into air and earth, a crucifix of elements of above and below connected in a circle.
So here’s a toast to all of your trees of life and that they may bless you for the coming lighter days.