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( Originally Published 1909 )
We have seen that most of the ceremonies that have attended or still attend the season of Christmas may be traced back to a period long before the birth of Christ.
The Christmas tree is no exception to this rule. It is pagan, not Christian in its origin, though it has been adapted to Christian uses. It came down to us from the pagan Teutons and Scandinavians, and on the way it was Christianized in Germany and Holland, in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, long before it had been made holy in the same manner among the English-speaking peoples.
Myth and history have both busied themselves with guesses at its origin. Let us begin with myth.
A very old legend makes Saint Winfred the inventor of the Christmas tree. Winfred (please note that this is the masculine form of which Winifred is the feminine) was one of the early missionaries to Norway who helped to wean the ancient Scandinavians from their pagan beliefs and practices.
He found that their priests, the Druids, had taught them to worship trees as if they were living gods. So he set himself the task of showing to his Christian converts that the objects of their former worship were not gods but trees, trees and nothing more. On Christmas eve, therefore, he hewed down a mighty oak in presence of a great crowd of men, women and children.
A miracle indeed followed. But it was a Christian miracle, and as such was all the more convincing to these simple people that their old-time faiths had been misplaced.
This is how the miracle is described by an ancient historian:
"As the bright blade circled around Winfred's head, and the flakes of wood flew from the deepening gash in the body of the tree, a whirling wind passed over the forest. It gripped the oak from its foun dations. Backward it fell like a tower, groaning as it split asunder in four pieces. But just behind it and unharmed by the ruin, stood a young fir tree pointing a green spire towards the stars.
"Winfred let the axe drop and turned to speak to the people.
"'This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. It is a sign of endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wildwood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness."
There is another old legend that is told by the people around Strassburg, a famous old city on the Rhine. Half way between this city and the neighboring town of Drusenheim there are still to be seen the ruins of an old castle. It probably dates back to the seventh century. Its chief feature is a massive gate. Deep sunk in the stone arch above this gate, and as clearly and sharply defined as if it had been carved only yesterday, is the impress of a small and delicate hand. And this is the story that is told to account for the presence of the hand.
One of the early lords of the castle was Count Otto yon Gorgas, a handsome and dashing youth, whose great delight was hunting big game. So devoted, indeed, was he to the shooting of deer and the spearing of wild boars that love could find no entrance into his heart. In vain did the fairest maidens in the land sigh for a soft speech or a tender glance from this wild huntsman. Mothers on both banks of the river Rhine had abandoned in despair all hope of securing him as a match for their daughters, while the daughters themselves had spitefully given him the name of Stony-heart, by which he had become generally known throughout the country side.
But Count Otto only laughed at the anger of the ladies, and continued to kill with his own hand such large quantities of game that new servants would not come into his employ, unless he had first agreed to give them venison or wild boar steaks not oftener than four days in the week.
One Christmas Eve Count Otto ordered that a battue or monster hunt should take place in the forest surrounding his castle. So exciting was the sport that he was led deep into the thickets and at night-fall found himself separated from all his friends and followers. He reined up beside a far-away spring, clear and deep, known to the country people as the Fairy's Well. His hands being stained with the blood of the wild animals he had slain, he dismounted from his horse to wash them in the spring.
Though the weather was cold and a white frost covered the dead leaves, Count Otto found to his surprise that the water of the well was warm and pleasant. A delightful feeling ran through his veins. Plunging his arms deeper into the well, he fancied that he felt his right hand grasped by another hand softer and smaller than his own, which gently drew from his finger a gold ring that he was accustomed to wear.
Sure enough, when he pulled his hand out of the water the ring was gone!
Though annoyed by his loss, the count decided that the ring had accidentally slipped from his finger. There was no opportunity for any further search that day, for the well was very deep and the sun had already set.
So Otto remounted his horse and rode back to the castle, resolving that in the morning he would have the Fairy's Well emptied out by his servants. Little doubt had he but that the ring would easily be found at the bottom.
As a rule Count Otto was a good sleeper. That night, however, he tried in vain to close his eyes. Lying restlessly awake he listened feverishly to the hoarse baying of the watch-dog in the court-yard until near midnight. Suddenly he raised himself on his elbows. What was that unusual noise he heard outside?
He strained his ears. Distinctly he again heard the creaking of the drawbridge as it was being lowered. A few minutes later there followed sounds as of the pattering of many feet up the stone` stairs and into the chamber next to his own. Then a wild strain of music came floating on the air, shooting a sweet mysterious thrill even into his "stony" heart.
Rising softly from his bed, Otto hastily dressed himself. A little bell sounded. His chamber door was suddenly flung open. He accepted what seemed like a wordless invitation. Crossing the threshold into the next room, he found himself in the midst of an assemblage of rather small but very lovely looking strangers of both sexes, who laughed, chatted, danced and sang without seeming in the least to notice him.
In the middle of the room stood a splendid Christmas tree from which a great number of many-colored lamps shed a flood of light throughout the apartment.
Now this was the first Christmas tree that had ever been seen in those parts, or indeed by any mortal folk in any portion of the world. And it was a Christmas tree of a sort that never again has been seen by any mortal folk in any portion of the world.
For surely never again has a Christmas tree borne such fruits. Instead of toys and candies the branches were hung with diamond stars and crosses, pearl necklaces, aigrettes of rubies and sapphires, baldricks embroidered with Oriental pearls, and daggers mounted in gold and studded with the rarest gems.
Lost in wonder at a scene he could not understand, the count gazed without the power of uttering a single word. There was a sudden movement at the end of the hall. The company stopped dancing and fell back to make way for a newcomer. Then in the bright rays of the Christmas lights, a dazzling vision stood in front of Count Otto.
It was a princess of astonishing beauty. Though only a girl in size, she was a woman in age. Though small, her body was exquisitely formed. There she stood, magnificently dressed as for a ball. A diadem sparkled amid her raven black locks, rich point lace only half veiled her snowy bosom, and her dress of rose-colored silk sat close to her slender figure, falling in folds just so low as to reveal the neatest feet and ankles in the world, while her sleeves were short enough to display beautiful arms of dazzling whiteness.
The charming stranger showed no awkward timidity. On the contrary, after a short pause she walked straight up to the count, caught him by both hands, and said, in the sweetest of voices:
"Dear Otto, I am come to return your call."
At the same time she raised her right hand to his lips. Forgetting all his old coldness towards the female sex he gallantly kissed it without making any other reply. Indeed, he felt fascinated, spellbound. He gladly let the beautiful stranger draw him to a couch where she sat herself down besides him. Her lips met his and before he could think about kissing them, he had done so.
"My dear friend," whispered the lady into his ear, "I am the fairy Ernestine. I have brought you a Christmas present. That which you lost and hardly hoped to find again, see! I fetch it back to you."
And, drawing from her bosom a little casket set with diamonds, she placed it in the hands of the count. He eagerly opened it. Not entirely unexpectedly (for had not her words forewarned him?) he found within it the ring that he had lost in the forest well.
Carried away by a feeling as strange as it was irresistible, Count Otto pressed the casket and then the lovely Ernestine to his breast.
"Delightful," murmured the maiden, who as you may see, was not so coy as are many maidens of the everyday world.
In brief the two had fallen in love with each other at first sight. Before they parted for the night, Otto had won the fairy's consent to become his wife.
One thing only she demanded of him. He must never make use of the word "death" in her presence. Fairies are immortal; she did not wish to be reminded that she was bound to a mortal husband.
It was easy enough for him to make this promise, and no doubt he thought it would be easy to keep it. Next day Count Otto von Gorgas and Ernestine, the Queen of the Fairies, were married with great pomp and ceremony. They lived happily together for some years in the grand old castle.
One day it chanced that the young couple were to assist at a great tourney in the neighborhood. The Lady Ernestine's horse stood in waiting for her at the castle gate. Being greatly occupied in adjusting a new headdress which her milliner had just brought home, she kept her husband waiting until his patience was worn out.
"Fair dame," he pettishly exclaimed when she at last appeared in the great hall where for half an hour he had been striding up and down in his uncomfortable armor, "you are so long making ready, you would be a good messenger to send for Death."
Scarcely had he uttered the fatal word than with a wild scream the lady disappeared. She left no trace behind her, except the print of her little hand above the castle gate. Every Christmas eve, however, she returns and flits about the ruins with loud lamentations, crying at intervals: "Death! Death! Death!"
As to Count Otto he went the way of all flesh and was gathered to his fathers not long after he had lost his spouse. But every Christmas Eve, while his life lasted, he would set up a lighted tree in the hall where he had first met the lady Ernestine, in the vain hope of wooing her back to his arms. And this, it is said in Strasburg and its neighborhood, was the origin of the Christmas tree.*
*London Illustrated News, December 25, 1855. Schulzer: Legends of the Rhine.