An Irishwoman's Diary
See them on the move, so many passive spoils of war: some trussed in plastic sleeves, and frequently tied either to the car roof or sticking out of an open boot. The occasional pine cone bounces on the road. Green branches heave and ripple in the breeze, an aura of victory lingers about the motorist driving away with one.
More than ever, in these hard times the Christmas tree must be secured.
Fir, spruce and pine – these are the trees that dominate the festive season. Soon they will be decorated with a range of themed objects, from snowmen to robins to Winnie the Pooh; to drums and candy cane – complemented by coloured balls and tinsel intended to replicate the icicles suspended from the eaves and gates outside. Formerly apples, nuts and dates were used, but edible ornaments have lost their appeal.
Gone too are the days when a father and an eldest son would trudge out over the packed snow to the nearest forest to chop down something suitable for standing at the heart of their family’s Christmas, be the room modest or grand. In common with turkeys and salmon, Christmas trees are farmed in their thousands, or millions, as a cash crop that takes about eight years to mature from seed. Raiding the local woodland, never mind a commercial plantation, is not to be recommended.
Extravagance emerged during the 19th century when Christmas first began to acquire the competitive element that would obscure the spiritual relevance of the birth of a saviour. “The whole great room was filled with the fragrance of slightly singed evergreen twigs and glowing with light from countless tiny flames” writes the German master Thomas Mann in Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901), “. . .There stood the mighty tree, between the dark red window curtains, towering nearly to the ceiling, decorated with silver tinsel and large white lilies, with a shining angel at the top . . .” It seems appropriate to quote Mann, as the Christmas tree is associated most closely with Germany, or more precisely the various states that would become the modern country. Communal celebration predated the merchandisers, the stress and expense. A dark green tree, covered with lights at mid-winter, suggested the renewal of the sun and its return.
This week’s solstice marks the beginning of Christmas as surely as it hints at the beginning of the end of winter.
In Northern Europe the winter solstice is referred to as Yuletide. Pagan worshippers performed rituals associated with fertility. Evergreen branches and garlands were potent symbols. Wood was burned to honour the gods and guarantee not only human and animal fertility but also healthy crops. The Nordic Yuletide centred on setting a large log aflame. Yet the most important element was fire as light.
Revellers are known to have danced around tall ceremonial trees in the Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia in the mid-15th and early 16th centuries. But the traditional Christmas tree as we know it decorated and standing in a place of honour in the family home, evolved in Germany. Initially the custom was to cut pine branches. Then entire trees were removed, causing local authorities to outlaw the felling of timber. This did not deter theologian and German Reformation figure Martin Luther (1483-1546), who is depicted in various 19th-century prints with his family and their tree.
Charles Dickens secularised Christmas without diminishing its morality.
A Christmas Carol ,which was first published in 1843 has never been out of print. The English or Dickens Christmas with its massive plum puddings and ice-skating might be seen to rival the German one, but no – Christmas remains most associated with Germany and Northern Europe because of the tree and guaranteed snowfall.
Towering decorated Christmas trees are erected in major streets and public places. Flashing lights, fibre optics and strobe effects are now commonplace, causing trees to change from silver to blue in the blink of the eye. The traditional approach was very different. Admittedly candles – so beautiful, atmospheric and far more romantic than electric lights – are hazardous to use, but so too has many a Christmas been ruined by faulty tree lights. Generations of fathers have also experienced minor electric shocks, compounding their seasonal stress. The contentious issue of artificial trees continues to divide opinions – and households.
Technology wields its sterile influence. Yet tradition often triumphs. The discerning Christmas tree is natural and magnificently adorned with wooden figures and glass balls, with or without candles, with or without a sled-load of presents beneath it.
Nothing surpasses the splendour, symbolism or scent of the Christmas tree.