When did tradition of a tree at Christmas take root?

Whether popularised by the ancient Egyptians, St Boniface, or Dickens, it’s not festive until the tree’s up, says John Daly

CHARLES DICKENS, a writer associated with Christmas, said: “I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree, towering high above their heads and brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers.”

Regardless of how the season of goodwill has been transformed down the decades, the Christmas tree is an unbroken link to all our childhoods. Whether your tree is tinsel and pulled annually from the attic, a mock stock with weird lime leaves, or real with pine needle and aromatic branches brushing the ceiling, it’s not Christmas until the tree is up.

Many countries lay claim to the Christmas tree. St Boniface, who brought Christianity to Germany 1,000 years ago, supposedly saw pagans worshipping an oak tree and cut it down in anger.

In its place, a fir sapling instantly grew — the woodsman saint understood this as a sign of the true faith.

The ancient Egyptians brought palm leaves indoors during the winter solstice to symbolise new life — as did the Romans to celebrate their Saturnalia feast of rebirth. Even the Druids, not known for light-heartedness, placed holly and mistletoe over doorways to ward off evil spirits.

The tree, as adopted by Western culture, likely came from the 16th century German ‘feast of Adam and Eve,’ described by Lutheran theologian Johann Damanhur as “a fir tree indoors, hung with dolls and sweets for the custom of child’s play.” When Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, he brought Saxony roots with him and set up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle — a practice that led to Dickens referencing the “pretty German toy.” German immigrants to America in the 17th century brought the custom across the Atlantic, resulting in President Calvin Coolidge founding the first Christmas tree lighting ceremony on the White House lawn, in 1923.

The spirit of goodwill to all men was tested two years ago when the Baltic cities of Riga and Tallinn debated which had the honour of celebrating the Christmas tree’s 500th birthday. Riga said theirs dated back 500 years to a street carnival in which the local merchants erected a giant fir decorated with flowers, fruit, and vegetables to mark the passage of one year to the next.

But the townsfolk of neighbouring Tallinn, not to be outdone in self-promotion, responded swiftly by claiming that they had first dibs on the tradition, and dated their tree back further, to 1441. Erected outside the town hall as a symbol of the city’s growing prosperity, local lore recorded that merchants and their womenfolk danced around the tree in hopes of increased commerce and fertility over the coming year.

Tallinn’s mayor, Edgar Savisaar, sent a cheeky telegram congratulating Riga on their 500th bash — but reminded them that 2010 was the 569th birthday. Nils Usakovs, Riga’s mayor, replied in a message laden with Christmas cheer: “It is surely a good thing that the only disagreement between the good neighbours of Riga and Tallinn is who has the oldest Christmas tree.” A born diplomat, surely, bearing the gift of peace.

Growing up in a rural Kerry heartland, the search for our family tree was an annual event adorned with a slightly larcenous intent.

Surrounded on all sides by State forest, where pine trees of multiple sizes poked forth, my brother and I sallied forth under cover of moonlight armed with an axe and saw for the perfect specimen.

Given that the valley had but a few dozen families, it was accepted practice that each house would perform the same petty misdemeanour — ever watchful for the local forest manager, who couldn’t be everywhere in the rural wilds. With most families picking the same Friday before Christmas for this nocturnal jaunt, the sound of muted, midnight sawing and chopping echoed across the deathly stillness as we bent to our tasks in different parts of the forest. It wasn’t as daring as poitin-making, for sure, but wicked sport, all the same, for a teenager in search of any distraction the countryside might yield.

In typical country style, everyone repaired to the local pub after the excursion — trees stored safely out of sight around the back. Hot whiskey was the standard tipple, even among usual pint drinkers, as we recounted our success in each of our ‘special places’.

One hottie led to another, and verses of The Bould Thady Quill and Sullivan John poured forth until the wee hours. Trouble ensued when it came to reclaiming our respective trees — all leaning against the same back wall. Discussion was impassioned on which was which, as identical pines found themselves the leery focus of many an inebriated eye.

After an hour or more, all 12 trees were reunited with their rightful owners — many of whom cycled their Raleighs into the night, wobbling under the weight of Christmas branches. Decades later, those debates in the darkness of winter resonate still in the memory, as does the rich, aromatic scent of fresh-cut pine.

Living in the city now, I look at the variety of municipal Christmas trees on display as the first signs of the season. Regardless of whether it’s the specimen greeting shoppers to the English Market, or the glorious natural Scotch pine in the grounds of Marymount, the sight of those twinkling lights never fails to cheer up even the gloomiest day.

Hans Christian Andersen, another writer whose words remain forever bright, got the sentiment perfectly: “Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, rising higher and higher, as stars in heaven.”


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