The tree at the heart of Christmas
I can’t remember when it was, but one year, walking on a bitterly cold night through College Green in Dublin, I turned a corner to see the Christmas tree at the Bank of Ireland building. It hadn’t been decorated yet, but the alcove was illuminated, and the green tree, standing out against the whiteness of stone, looking bravely alive at the dead of winter, was one of the most beautiful things I had seen.
This year, an evergreen has returned to O’Connell Street, after a few years’ interlude with a blinging glassy confection that will now spend the festivities in Smithfield.
The distance between these two trees seems to sum up that question: what should a Christmas tree look like? Travel around the world, and you’ll see this symbol of the Christmas spirit reflected in everything from Smithfield’s glass balls, to a vertigo-inducing 45m-high construction in Dortmund, Germany, to the light-strung evergreens that most of us grew up with.
We all carry our own idea of what Christmas is, created from layers of belief, myth and memory. It’s a construction of Christmas that is just like Christmas itself: those immemorial and, to us, immutable customs are vastly different in other countries and other cultures. Moving away from tradition and belief, and against the tide of commercialism and secularism, the struggle for the soul of Christmas is reflected, more than anywhere else, in the changing style, if not shape, of Christmas trees.
The bringing in of the green has been a winter solstice custom across the centuries, faiths and traditions. The ancient Egyptians brought green palm leaves into their homes to welcome the return of Ra, the sun god; early Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a feast for the god of agriculture, with evergreen boughs; and druids used evergreens, as symbols of everlasting life, brought indoors at this time of year.
Trees come into Christianity through a German story of the Christ child gifting a family with a tree as a thank you for shelter one midwinter night. The decorated Christmas tree, as we know it, is also a German institution, dating to the 16th century, and Martin Luther is credited with illuminating it with candles to celebrate God’s glory, reflected in the stars. But it took a while to catch on abroad. Oliver Cromwell, unsurprisingly, preached against the tree as a “heathen tradition”, while in 1659, the governor of Massachusetts made having decorated trees a criminal offence as they sullied the spirituality of the season.
Queen Victoria, with her German husband prince Albert, popularised the tree in 19th-century Britain and, at that time, all the glass tree-baubles in the world were made in just one place – Lauscha in Germany. Nevertheless, it took a while to catch on; the first official public Christmas tree didn’t appear in the US until 1913, when president Woodrow Wilson instituted the tradition at the Capitol building.
Decorations on trees in public places are a bit tricky – after all, too pretty and delicious and they’re at risk of being “borrowed” as souvenirs. Most municipal trees are simply hung with ropes of lights, although the one at Rockefeller Plaza in New York, hung with 30,000 lights, is also topped with a Swarovski crystal star. The tree in Moscow’s Red Square is created from cones of evergreen, wrapped round a scaffold, in which the decorations are an integral part. You’ll see something similar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Seoul, South Korea.
At home, it’s the smell of a real tree that I love most; that and the beautiful sense of nature indoors, which seems to be the perfect antidote to the gaudy brightness, and occasional avarice of Christmas. Something similar seemed to be going on when Northern Irish designer Shane Connolly decorated Westminster Abbey with growing trees for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton earlier this year. Nature outclasses bling every time.