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( Originally Published 1909 )
We have now considered the far-off origins of the Christmas tree. We have decided that it is an adaptation of the Yggdrasil and other sacred trees of the pagan past to Christian and modern uses. Not yet, however, have we bridged the chasm that divides the history of the old tree from that of the new one.
How, where and by whom was the Christmas tree, as we now know it, brought into the Christmas festivities and associated with the Christ-child and Saint Nicholas? I am sorry to say that it is impossible to give positive answers to any of these questions.
There is, indeed, a very popular German tradition which makes Martin Luther the inventor of the modern Christmas tree. One bright Christmas eve, it is said, as Luther was journeying home through a snowcovered country, he was more than ever struck by the wondrous spectacle of the star-lit sky above him.
It is a very common saying, one which dates back to an old Greek philosopher but which has been repeated by many other wise men of modern times, that if a grown person who had all his life gone to bed with the setting sun and got up with the rising one, and who, therefore, had never seen the moon or the stars, were suddenly to be awakened at midnight, he would be overwhelmed by the glorious mystery of the spectacle overhead. We who are accustomed to the sight from our cradles can hardly realize the shock of such a surprise. Because we have seen the moon and stars ever since we could remember we forget how wonderful they are, and how beautiful is the scene they present. We take them as a matter of course.
Now Martin Luther was a poet as well as a preacher. One great difference between a poet and an ordinary person of slower imagination is that he adds to the wisdom of manhood the freshness and simplicity of childhood. He retains the young heart with the mature brain. As Carlyle, a great modern writer, has said, he sees the world "rimmed around with wonder." Carlyle being, like Martin Luther, a poet, even though he rarely put his thoughts into verse and rhyme, never lost the sense of wonder and awe towards the manifestations of God in the universe.
God is everywhere, though we poor, purblind folk only now and then catch glimpses of Him. If we could clear away the mists that have gathered round our eyes during our progress through the world we would know that He is everywhere. It is the poet who keeps his eyes clearest for the Blessed Vision.
Luther arrived at home, so the story continues, with brain and heart full of the feelings and the thoughts that had been inspired in him by the firmament of shining stars. He tried to explain to his wife and children just what those thoughts and feelings were. Suddenly an idea struck him. Going into the garden he cut oft' a little fir tree, dragged it into the nursery, put some candles into its branches and lighted them. Ever after that, we are told, Luther fixed up a Christmas tree in his home for the instruction and entertainment of his wife and children. The custom was imitated by his neighbors and finally spread all over Germany.
This is a very pretty legend, but it is legend and not history. It deserves no more credit than the story of St. Winfred which I have quoted from German folklore, or the fairy tale which, as I have said, still lingers among the people in and around Strasburgh.
All that we know from real history is that a tree with lighted candles was now and then used in the middle ages, and later, in connection with the Christmas rejoicings.
Such a tree is known to have played its part in a Christmas pageant given at the court of Henry VIII.in England. The tree is described at some length in the chronicles of the time, but it is evident from these descriptions that it lacked the chief feature of the modern one. It was not a bearer of presents.
So far as it is possible to gather from history, the Christmas tree, as we know it today, made its first appearance in Strassburgh. This is interesting in view of the fact that one of the earliest legends in explanation of the custom finds its home in that city. More authentic witness is afforded by an old manuscript still preserved in a library at Friedburg, Germany, which was written by a citizen of Strassburgh in the year 1608. This manuscript speaks of a tree all alight with candles and bedecked with presents as being a regular feature of the Christmas festivities of that time. Therefore we are sure that the Christmas tree had come into common use in this region by the beginning of the seventeenth century. Further than that there is no certainty.
The custom appears to have spread from Strassburgh to the neighboring cities along the Rhine and to have flourished in that limited district for fully two hundred years.
Suddenly, about the beginning of the nineteenth century, it made its appearance outside of the Rhenish towns in other nearby localities, until finally it had invaded the whole of Germany. Fifty years later it had conquered nearly all Christendom.
In the year 1825 the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, visited Germany to spend the winter months in that country. One of his letters written in the following January speaks of the Christmas tree as something entirely unknown to his fellow countrymen.
"There is a Christmas custom here," he says, "which pleased and interested me. The children make little presents to their parents and to each other and the parents to their children. For three or four months before Christmas the girls are all busy and the boys save up their pocket money to buy these presents. What the present is to be is cautiously kept secret; and the girls have a world of contrivances to conceal it-such as working when they are out on visits, and the others are not with them; getting up in the morning before daylight and so forth. Then, on the evening before Christmas day, one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew-bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough, but not so as to burn it till they are nearly consumed, and colored paper, etc., hangs and flutters from the twigs.
"Under this bough the children lay out, in great order, the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder, one by one, from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces. Where I witnessed this scene, there were eight or nine children, and the oldest daughter and the mother wept aloud for joy and tenderness; and the tears ran down the face of the father, and he clasped all his children so tight to his breast, it seemed as if he did it to stifle the sob that was rising within it. I was very much affected. The shadow of the bough and its appendages on the wall, and arching over on the ceiling, made a pretty picture; and then the raptures of the very little ones, when at last the twigs and their needles began to take fire and snap-O! it was a delight to them!
"On the next day (Christmas day) in the great parlor, the parents lay out on the table the presents for the children; a scene of more sober joy succeeds; as on this day, after an old custom, the mother says privately to each of her daughters and the father to his sons, that which he has observed most praiseworthy and that which was most faulty in their conduct."
Continuing, Coleridge tells us that formerly, and still in all the smaller towns and villages throughout North Germany, these presents were sent by all the parents to some young fellows, who, in high buskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig personates Knecht Ruprecht, i. e. the servant Rupert.
"On Christmas night he goes round to every house, and says that Jesus Christ, his Master, sent him thither. The parents and elder children receive him with great pomp and reverence, while the little ones are most terribly frightened. He then inquires for the children, and according to the character which he hears from the parents, he gives them the intended presents, as if they came out of heaven from Jesus Christ, or if they should have been bad children, he gives the parents a rod, and, in name of his Master, recommends them to use it frequently. About seven or eight years old, the children are let into the secret, and it is curious how faithfully they keep it."