Tuesday, December 20, 2011
They gave us WWI, the Holocaust, WWII... and the Christmas Tree
Dear TWIG Readers,
Like all immigrants to the New World, Germans brought many beloved traditions with them when they came to the Americas. And so it was with the Christmas tree, which dates back as a modern Christian tradition to 16th-century Germany.
One of the earliest documented reports of a Christmas tree, some of which also suggest it was a common custom around the same time in Livonia (present-day Latvia), comes from the northern German city state of Bremen.
According to at least one source from Germany cited online: "A Bremen guild chronicle of 1570 reports that a small tree decorated with 'apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers' was erected in the guild-house for the benefit of the guild members' children, who collected the dainties on Christmas Day."
Other documented cases highlight the even earlier use of Christmas trees in the German-speaking Alsace region (present-day France) and in southwestern Germany, including the cities of Freiburg and Baden-Baden.
Coming to America
But the pre-Christian, alleged "pagan" roots of the Christmas tree custom led many American Christians to be suspicious of it at first, and it was not until the mid-19th century that it caught on as a widespread holiday tradition in the United States.
From palaces to parlors
This process was accelerated by the royal family adopting the custom in Great Britain, aided by the enthusiasm of German-born Prince Albert. A charming black-and-white engraved etching of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children reportedly wended its way into a US publication, minus the royal trappings such as the Queen's tiara, to become a popular "every family" image of domestic holiday bliss that then really took off in 19th-century America.
The ancient Egyptians (palm trees), Greeks (evergreen trees), and Romans (mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, which included 12 candles on a tree in honor of a sun god) all used greenery to celebrate resurrection or renewal, according to online reports.
In Northern Europe, meanwhile, as at least one Web site suggests: "the ancient Germanic people tied fruit and attached candles to evergreen tree branches, in honor of their god Woden. ... the deity after which Wednesday was named."
The trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life. They joined other symbols of the season, including holly, mistletoe, and the Yule log, which reportedly all also predated Christianity.
Myths lost in the mists of time
Among the most widespread legendary European Christmas tree tales is one involving St. Bonifcace (approx. 675-755) and one involving Martin Luther (1483-1546), although both are allegedly steeped more in myth than in fact.
Luther may, however, according to various online reports, have been one of the first people in Germany to suggest placing lit candles on a tree on Christmas Eve, a tradition which continues to this day.
Where's the pickle?
And there never has, morever, been a "pickle" hidden inside a Christmas tree in Germany, despite what many packages of glass pickle ornaments sold beyond Germany's borders might lead folks to believe in a bid to boost sales of, well, glass pickle ornaments, "natürlich" (naturally).
As one Web site has put it: "A very old Christmas eve tradition in Germany was to hide a pickle (ornament) deep in the branches of the family Christmas Tree. The parents hung the pickle last after all the other ornaments were in place. In the morning they knew the most observant child would receive an extra gift from St. Nicholas. The first adult who finds the pickel traditionally gets good luck for the whole year."
Naughty or nice*
While this is really a cute story and sounds like a fun Christmastime "legend," most Germans would tell you that they've never heard of such a tradition. (In the interest of full disclosure, we have received several queries over the years about this "custom" here at the German Embassy in Washington. The reply was always the same: "No, this is not a widespread or well-known German custom.")
They would, however, confirm that St. Nicholas actually does not arrive in Germany on Christmas Day. Instead he shows up on December 6, when children used to put out a shoe the night before to receive either gifts if they were nice or - if they were naughty - some lumps of coal as a form of punishment. (Most kids used to get some nuts or fruit - rare wintertime treats before the 20th century - or gingerbread cookies.)
In Austria, there is also a horned, furry "devil-goat-man" known as the "Krampus" who allegedly will appear to "punish" and "scare" you on December 6 if you've been bad. (This is why Austrians sometimes have little "Krampus" figures among some of their Christmas decorations or holiday party giveaways, although today this old tradition really is just hinted at in a spirit of teasing fun.)
Christmas Eve tradition
German families, moreover, always open their presents on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day, so there is no "finding a pickle in the morning" either.
That said, German kids have just as much fun opening their gifts on December 6 and on Christmas Eve as American kids do on Christmas Morning - the sense of anticipation and excitement bordering on giddy hysteria is the same for all children, all over the world. As most adults who grew up with their own Christmas traditions fondly recall, it really is one of the best things ever about being a kid.
Editor, The Week in Germany
*A question we might ask about all Germans.