Long before the advent of Christianity, people celebrated the winter solstice (December 21-22 in the northern hemisphere) with festivals. These were intended to brighten up the darkest time of year and prevent people from sinking into deep depression. They would bring lots of greenery indoors – branches of evergreens in particular, including spruce, fir and pine and, of course, holly and ivy. The evergreen tree was seen as a symbol of life in the midst of winter, many people believing that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.
In some ancient civilisations, the sun was revered as a god. To the ancient Egyptians, for example, Ra was the Sun God. In the cold winter months the god would become weak and sick, and the solstice, the shortest day of the year, represented the turning point. After that time the days would gradually lengthen and the god would start to grow well again.
Many traditions we have today came from ancient civilisations which were later converted to Christianity. Such traditions include gift-giving from the Roman Saturnalia, and burning the Yule log and enjoying a variety of foods from Norse and Germanic feasts. Scandinavians today still call Christmas, Jul.
To many people, Christmas would not be the same without the resinous smell of pine or fir trees inside their homes. Although lots of people opt for artificial trees nowadays -whether for environmental reasons, the mess of dropped needles, or the cost of buying anther tree every year – the sale of ‘real’ trees is still booming. But where did this tradition come from?
There are several stories about the earliest use of whole fir trees at Christmas. One story tells us that, in the early 8th Century, Saint Boniface travelled from Britain across Germany to convert the pagans to Christianity. Coming across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young man beneath Odin’s sacred oak, he valiantly rescued the young man and cut down the tree. Some legends have it that in place of the oak, a single fir tree grew. Other legends tell us that Boniface himself planted the fir. Whichever version is true, it seems that that the following year the converted Germans decorated the young fir (irrespective of the miniscule size that a year-old fir would be!)
One of the earliest references to whole trees actually being brought indoors comes from Germany in the 16th Century. One story holds that the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was the first to add lighted candles in an attempt to replicate the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst the evergreens.
Although Prince Albert , the German husband of Queen Victoria, is generally given credit for introducing the Christmas tree into English homes, it was actually Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, who set up the first Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in 840.
In Victorian times, trees were decorated with sweets and cakes hung with ribbon, and candles as a reminder of the stars in the sky on the night of Christ’s birth. Today, candles have been replaced by coloured lights, and cakes by a variety of ornaments and baubles.
The most famous tree in Britain stands in Trafalgar Square – a giant Norway Spruce , which is a yearly gift from Norway. It is sent to the British people in thanks for the help given to King Haakon VII, who was exiled to Britain after the German occupation of Norway during WW2.
In the US, trees were not accepted until a little later, despite the many German settlers in Pennsylvania. As late as 1840, Christmas trees were still seen as a pagan symbol by most Americans, and many of the New England Puritans tried to stamp out what they called the ‘pagan mockery of the observance’. It was not until the influx of German and Irish immigrants that this puritan legacy was abandoned. In the US today, perhaps the most famous tree stand in the Rockefeller Center in New York.
This custom dates back to the Depression Era days, and the tallest tree was in 1948, a Norway Spruce standing 100 foot tall. It came from Killingworth in Conneticut.
In our house we always have a real tree – and always a Norway Spruce. The smell is just amazing. We always buy from a regular ‘Christmas Tree Farm’, so I don’t feel at all guilty about damaging the environment. There is an ongoing system whereby all cut trees are replaced by newly planted ones. We go to the large estate at Doddington Hall, about five miles away. Doddington is a small, stately hall with an enormous estate on which the trees are grown (as well as wonderful fields of strawberries for ‘pick your own’ in June and July). They have different species on offer, including Norway Spruce and Nordman Fir – which has stiffer needles than the spruce, so it doesn’t drop as readily, but which doesn’t have the right smell for me.
Our tree goes in the conservatory which is off our lounge so we just have the connecting doors open over Christmas. The floor in there is wooden, so the needles are easier to sweep up, and the outside door means it goes out that way when it’s dropping needles like crazy after Christmas. We have a seven-footer this year. On the top is a fairy (or it could be an angel – it’s hard to tell!). It was made years ago at school by our youngest son when he was six, and the tree wouldn’t be the same without it.