If you look closely at the threshing floors of old Black Forest houses, you may notice magic numbers scratched into them, as well as a tree of life in the form of a fir or spruce branch. Some old churches contain the same symbol. There are three horizontal steps beneath an abstract image of a Christmas tree, representing a shamanic staircase to the sky and the world tree, that reveal the pagan past (Schilli 1968, 34). This farming culture detail is easily overlooked, but it demonstrates that the symbolic meaning of the fir tree has deep roots in the past as a world tree and life tree, and only recently as the popular Christmas tree.
In 1604 the Alsatian town of Strasbourg made the first reference to the fir tree in association with the Christmas tree: “On Christmas they put fir trees in the rooms in Strasbourg, they hang red roses cut from many coloured paper, apples, offerings, gold tinsel, sugar.” It is customary to frame it with four corners” (Kronfeld 1906, 149).
Depending on family tradition, the tree brought into the house is now festively decorated and referred to as the “jultree,” “light tree,” “Christmas tree,” or “Christ tree.” How many people are aware that this practise was long reviled by the church? Numerous sources in folk literature mention the fact that the
“Because of the pagan origin, and the depletion of the forest, there were numerous regulations that forbade, or put restrictions on, the cutting down of fir greens throughout the Christmas season” (Vossen 1985, 86).
The Schlettstadt record ledgers stated that unauthorised cutting of maien had been prohibited since 1521, emphasising the importance of forest protection in the face of this “forest damage.” Christmas meyen cutting was prohibited in Freiburg, Breisgau, and was punishable by a fine of ten rappen (Spamer 1937, 71). Johan David Gehard proposed tolerating the fir tree “to the extent that there was less idolatry associated with it” at the beginning of the eighteenth century (one hundred years after the Strasbourg reference from 1604). (Spamer 1937, 72).
Considering all of this, the name “Christmas tree” appears ironic. Worshiping decorated May branches and May trees is still considered pagan nature worship—and, from a Christian standpoint, idolatry. There is no connection between Jesus Christ and the fir tree or any other needle-bearing tree in the Bible. It’s easy to see why. Except for the pine tree, the Holy Land is devoid of needle-bearing trees.
How did the pagan world tree become christened as a Christmas tree by the church? According to Dorothea Forstner, chairwoman of the Benedictines in St. Gabriel of Berholdstein, “the pagan origin of the May tree, maypole tree, and even the Christmas tree is a little-known fact.” You come across old superstitions about the transferability of natural powers from one being to another. By bringing branches or trees into contact with humans, nature’s fresh and blossoming life and fertility were transferred to them, and evil influences were repelled.
Green branches were hung, candles were lit, and all of these things were used as a form of defence, especially during the cold nights between December 25 and January 6, when evil spirits were most feared. Later, the trees themselves were used for the same purpose, with candles hung from them… The church kept these old traditions but gave them new meaning as a symbol for Christ: the true tree of life and the light of the world.
Trees for Christmas
The Christmas gifts are hidden beneath the Christmas tree. The children had written letters to the baby Jesus and slipped them in between the winter windows weeks before. The modern custom of giving gifts is relatively new. There was a time when the Christmas tree was also unknown on the mountainside. FINK 1983, 366
The market has a Christmas tree for every taste: fir, red fir, spruce, and even plastic replicas. Klaus Modick, a novelist, presents modern Christmas tree shoptalk about the selling points of various fir trees: For example, the robust Northman fir, which was originally imported from Scandinavia… or a noble spruce from the new German countries? Or something a little more conventional in terms of branch structure, but a very solid piece. The top is prominent. Blue fir, with good colour grooming in the needle lug, is also in high demand… Or the old and good Black Forest noble fir? Or would you prefer something more spectacular? Could we show you the alp fir that has been crossbred with dwarfpine? Modick, 2002. The sight of a tree brought into a cosy room delighted our forefathers, especially during the old-fashioned, romantic era.
Moritz von Schwind, Ludwig Richter, and other nineteenth-century artists imprinted in our collective consciousness the image of a festively lit tree standing in the centre of the room, surrounded by a family with many children. The custom of bringing a tree into the room and decorating it from December 24 to January 6 was invented in Germany.
The baker’s guild in Freiburg may have been the first to record the practise in writing in 1419. (Breisgau). Others claim that the well-known Strasbourg tree from 1604 was the first decorated fir tree. In 1785, the first tree was illuminated there. In 1799, an engraving after a drawing by Johann Martin Usteri (1763-1827) depicts a festively lit tree as the focal point of a Zurich family. The first Christmas trees arrived in Leipzig in 1807, Berlin in 1810, and Danzig in 1815. (Fink 1983, 367).
The Christmas tree was introduced to England in 1848 by Prince Albert of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha, Queen Victoria’s husband. The first Christmas tree was admired in Innsbruck in 1851. Ironically, the first Christmas tree may have arrived in France during the German-French war of 1870-1871. However, views on this vary. According to Riemerschmidt (1962, 21), Princess Helene von Meckleburg (Duchess of Orléans by marriage) brought the Christmas tree to Paris in 1837. Others claim it happened in 1840.
The first massive, lighted tree lit up an official square in New York, on the other side of the Atlantic from Europe, in 1912. (Fink 1983, 367). Since then, the presence of the Christmas tree has yielded to religious boundaries but never to geographical ones. It has reached the Mediterranean countries, the New World, and the hot and humid tropics, albeit as flimsy, electrically illuminated, plastic imitations due to the lack of a botanical original. (Such substitutes originated with soldiers serving on the battlefield during World War I.) However, even in the new millennium, man-made, indestructible ersatz trees cannot compete with the true wintertime evergreen. In terms of economics, artificial trees have a fifteen to twenty percent market share.