Christmas trees are of German origin. One legend connects them with St Boniface, the 8th century English missionary to Germany. He cut down a sacred oak at Geismar one Christmas Eve, and is said to have offered the outraged pagans a young FIR-tree in its place, to be an emblem of the new faith he preached. A later story says Martin Luther introduced the custom by using a candlelit tree as an image of the starry heavens (Tille). But the fact is that the first record of a Christmas tree occurs in 1604, at Strassburg, where the adorning of houses with fir branches at New Year is witnessed at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century. Fir trees were put up in rooms, decorated with "roses" cut out of many-coloured papers, and with apples, gold-leaf, sweets, etc., and fixed in a rectangular frame. It is interesting to compare this with the legend of flowers blooming at Christmas (usually Old Style) (see GLASTONBURY THORN), for often boughs of cherry trees and hawthorn were, a fortnight before New Year, put into water in a warm place, in the hope that they would bloom at New Year or Christmas. The blossoms, if any, were used as an oracle; if there were a lot of them, well shaped, it meant luck; if the opposite, the omen was not at all good (Tille). Are we to assume that modern Christmas trees are just a substitute for trees and bushes actually in bloom?
The cult of the Christmas tree was familiar in the United Sates long before it was known in much of
Europe. There is evidence of one being in use by German settlers in Pennsylvania as early as 1746. It spread to France from Germany in the early 19th century, and German merchants and court officials brought it to England in the late 1820s (Hadfield & Hadfield). Prince Albert really established the custom here, but apparently Queen Caroline had one in her court in 1821, and by 1840 it was well-known in Manchester, where it had been introduced by German merchants who had settled there (Hole. 1941). Technically though, there were much earlier English examples. For instance, Twelfth Night used to be celebrated at Brough, in Cumbria, by carrying through the town a holly-tree with torches attached to its branches. And the Wassail-bob, also called Wesley-bob, was really another Christmas tree example. It was still being carried round on a stick in Yorkshire, particularly Huddersfield, Leeds and Aberford, in the mid-19111 century (J O'Neill).
A common substitute for the Christmas tree in Saxony last century was the "pyramid", a wooden structure decorated with coloured papers and lights. In Berlin, the pyramid had green twigs as well as candles and papers, and so looked more like the genuine thing. Pyramids, without lights apparently, were known in England before 1840, and in the Faeroes, too, before the relatively recent introduction of the real thing (Williamson). Pyramids in Hertfordshire were made of gilt evergreens, apples and nuts, and were carried about just before Christmas for presents. They appeared in Herefordshire at the New Year (Miles). Trees of various kinds are known as Christmas trees in other lands. New Zealand has one that goes under that name because of the red flowers that open in December and January; its native name is Pohutukawa (Hadfield & Hadfield, Leathart).
Other trees have been the recipient of the name in this country. HOLLY, of course, already associated with Christmas, and SPRUCE FIR or SILVER FIR, the "standard" Christmas trees, even the MONKEY PUZZLE, or Chilean Pine (Araucaria araucana). The oddest example must be the HORSE CHESTNUT, which, although having no association with Christmas, seems to be a reminder when it is in full bloom. Each flower spike is a Candle, then a Christmas Candle.
In France, branches of JUNIPER act as a Christmas tree; they are put round the chimney breast, and presents for the children are hung from them (Salle). In Italy, too, juniper is hung up at Christmas time (Elworthy. 1895).
Chrysanthemum segetum > CORN MARIGOLD Cicer arietinum > CHICK PEA Cichorium intybus > CHICORY Cicuta maculata > AMERICAN COWBANE Cicuta virosa > COWBANE
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