History and Legend of the Christmas Tree

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In Rome, the first person to decorate a Christmas Tree was Queen Margherita, it was during the second half of the Nineteenth Century and from her the trend quickly spread through the entire country. Truth is that, many centuries before, the ancient Romans already used to decorate their houses with pine branches during January Calends.

At the base of the Christmas tree are the ancient customs of decorating the Trees of Paradise with ribbons and coloured objects, torches, little bells, votive little animal figurines. It was believed that lights paralleled to souls. In the same way the Cosmic Trees were decorated with symbols of the Sun, the Moon, the Planets and the Stars. The fir tree was sacred to Odin, powerful God of the German tribes.

The use of decorating some evergreen trees was already common between the Celts during celebrations linked with the winter solstice. For example, in the extreme North Europe, where sun “disappeared” for entire weeks in the middle of the winter, during the week before and after the day with the longest night of the year, the Vikings celebrated to bring about the return of the sun. It was also thought that the fir tree had magical powers, because it did not lose any leaves, not even during the coldest winter days: fir tree branches were cut and brought home and then decorated with fruits, to remember spring’s fertility.

Some people think that the modern use of the tree was born in Tallinn – Estonia – in 1441, when a huge fir tree was put in the City Hall Square, Raekoja Plats. Young unmarried men and women started to gather around it to dance together looking for their twin soul. In the Sixteenth century this tradition was then adopted in Germany. Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann (ethnology’s Professor in Marburg) discovered, in the first historical references of the tradition, a chronicle of Bremen dated 1570. According to this chronicle, a tree was adorned with apples, walnuts, dates and paper flowers. Riga is one of the city which claims to be the place where the first Christmas tree appeared.

Later on fruit trees were substituted with fir trees, because the latter had a profound “magic” value for the community. They had the special gift of being evergreen. According to tradition, this blessing had been given by Jesus himself as a gratitude gesture for being protected when followed by enemies.

In Wien, the Christmas tree was used for the first time in 1816, by the will of Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg and in France in 1840, introduced by the Duchess of Orleans. In the first years of the Nineteenth century, in Switzerland and in Germany, Christmas trees started being produced and sold, so they became part of consumerism.

A concrete contribution to its diffusion came from Great Britain: during the middle of the Nineteenth century, in fact, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, husband of Queen Victoria, because of its German origins, wanted to introduce in its residences the use of the Christmas tree; news soon spread the trend in the entire United Kingdom and from there in the whole Anglo-Saxon world.

“one of the legends on the origin of the Christmas tree takes us back in a faraway country village, on Christmas’ Eve day. A little boy got into the woods, looking for an oak log to burn in the fireplace during the Holy night. He stayed out longer than he had to and as darkness came, he could not find its way back home. It also began to snow.

The boy felt the aguish grow inside of him and thought about how long he had waited for that Christmas, which maybe he would not get to celebrate. Tiredness took him and the little one fell asleep at the foot of a tree. The tree, moved by this pitiful scene, lowered its branches in order to protect the boy from snow and cold.

The morning after, the youth woke up and felt in the distance the voices of the village inhabitants who had gone out looking for him. When he went out of his hiding place, he could hug once again his friends. Everyone noticed the wonderful sight appearing in front of them: the snow fallen during the night, on the leafy branches, had bended the plant to the soil and it had formed garlands, decorations and crystals which, at the light of the rising sun, looked like sparkling lights of incomparable magnificence. The fir tree was then adopted as the symbol of Christmas and since then in all houses it is decorated and lit , as to reproduce the scene that the inhabitants of the little village saw on that distant day.”