Image: The Christmas Tree by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911.
Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Chevallier_Tayler_-_The_Christmas_Tree_1911.jpg
The tree was considered the symbol of life in different traditions and in different periods. In particular, the evergreens represented in human beliefs the persistence of life even over the “death” of nature in winter. Some of the pre-Christian celebrations predecessors of Christmas featured rituals with a tree that symbolized life and fertility. These ancient traditions have survived in a way until today, recognized in the modern custom of decorating Christmas Tree, or Yule Tree, usually represented by a fir-tree or a pine-tree.
One of the possible predecessors of the Christmas tree is the Yule Log (known as Ceppo Natalizio in Italy, or Bûche de Noël in France). It was used during the period of Midwinter celebrations and in particular, ancient Yule feast. According to the tradition, before the Christmas Night each male member of the family would go to the woods, cut a log of olive, birch, fir or oak-tree and bring it home to burn it in the fire. The fire from the Yule log had to last throughout all the Christmas night, and its remains were carefully kept during the year, as a good omen. It was said that the cinders of this log could protect the house from lightning and the malevolent spirits. Some houses have a log for each child in the family. The Christians used to say they would light the log “to warm little Jesus”.
"Chambers Yule Log" by Robert Chambers - The Book of Days (1864), p. 734. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Around the 13th century the tradition of Yule log was spread in many European countries, and lasted until the end of the 19th century, especially in France, Italy, England, Central Germany, western Switzerland and Balkan countries. With the spread of cast-iron stoves and declining use of wood the traditional Yule log was replaced by a smaller log that was decorated with candles and greenery and placed on the festive table.
Today, the Yule log is spread in Europe as log-shaped cake, covered with chocolate and decorated with holly leaves and roses of sugar.
Legend about St Boniface and the fir-tree
In the Christian tradition the Christmas tree appeared in the 8th century. By the tradition, St Boniface, a Benedictine of Anglo-Saxon origin who preached Christianity to the Germans, once came upon a pagan celebration. According to the records, pagans stood around a huge oak-tree, when Boniface started to chop it down. Suddenly a great wind started blowing the ancient oak over, as if helping Boniface. The folks, amazed that their pagan god did not strike the monk, started to listen to him and were converted to Christianity. The popular legend adds that on the place of the oak appeared a little fir-tree, presented by Boniface as a symbol of the eternal life. Besides, the Christians associate the fir-tree to Christ, as His cross is believed to have been made of the fir-wood.
Picture: So they took the little fir from its place... Illustration from The First Christmas Tree, by Henry Van Dyke, Illustrated by Howard Pyle
Taken from The Project Gutenberg eBook, http://www.gutenberg.org
Yule Tree in the Northern Europe
Already in the Medieval period in Scandinavian and Germanic countries, before the Midwinter feasts, people traditionally went to the forest to cut down a Yule tree (which is another name for Christmas tree, deriving from the ancient festival of Yule celebrating Midwinter, that conserved its name and many traditions in the Northern Europe). The tree was brought at home and decorated with garlands, coloured eggs and sweets.
Medieval “Paradise Play”
Sometimes the origins of Christmas tree tradition is associated with the medieval “Paradise Play”, a religious representation that showed the creation of the man and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. This play was performed every year on December 24. By lack of the real apple-tree in fruit people used the evergreens like pine or fir, hanging apples on its branches.
German Christmas Pyramid
Christmas Pyramid (Weihnachtspyramide in German) is a special Christmas decoration in Germany. It is usually made of wood and looks like a kind of carousel with several levels depicting different motifs created with miniatures and figures: manger scenes, mountain villages, forests and other religious and folk scenes. The spinning motion of the pyramids is traditionally achieved with the help of candles whose rising heat spins a propeller above. Christmas Pyramid is considered to be the predecessor of the Christmas tree in Germany, decorated in the past centuries with evergreen vegetation, biscuits, candles and fruit.
Legend about Martin Luther and the Christmas Tree
Another tale is referred to Martin Luther, a German monk and important figure of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. It narrates that once Martin was walking in the forest on Christmas Eve, when he noticed numerous stars glimmering through the branches of evergreen trees, and was much impressed by such a beauty. So he cut down a small tree and took it home. To recreate the starlight beauty of the forest, he placed candles on the branches.
Christmas Tree Decorations
In the ancient times folks already decorated their feast trees, putting on the branches some fruit, wreaths, garlands and sacrificial symbols. Those decorations were supposed to express gratitude to the deities and referred to the fertility, rebirth and eternal life.
The earliest Christian decorations included coloured eggs, apples and sacramental breads. Later on candles, card flowers, dried flowers and sweets for children were added on the Christmas tree. Today, the variety of decorations in Europe includes stars, bells, angels, Christmas baubles, tinsel, lights, snowflakes, icicles, shapes of birds, animals and traditional Christmas figures. Decorations can be made of various materials, from wood, paper and straw to glass, plastic and textile. Unfortunately, the growing commercialization of the holiday makes Christmas decorations greatly varied in shapes, materials, colours and originality, at the same time losing quite a lot of their spiritual meaning and value and concentrating more on the design solutions and beautiful look of the decorated tree.
Picture: Christmas tree in Paris. Illustration from Yule-Tide in Many Lands by Mary P. Pringle and Clara A. Urann. Illustrator: L. J. Bridgman
Taken from The Project Gutenberg eBook, http://www.gutenberg.org
Many countries have developed their own characteristic decorations, for example, in Sweden ornaments of wood and straw figures are typical, in Denmark they use among others tiny Danish flags, in Czech Republic there are ornaments created in painted egg shells, the particular symbols in Lithuania are bird cages made of straw.