“Fresh Christmas Trees” the roadside notice boasted, pointing the traveller along an access road.
What, I wondered, are ‘fresh’ Christmas trees, for I cannot imagine that anyone would wish to buy a frozen Christmas tree, or one which has been lying around the forester’s yard for a few weeks. And then I wondered why anyone wants to buy a Christmas tree at all, fresh or otherwise. Where did this custom start, and why?
Let’s start with Queen Victoria, for her husband, Prince Albert, is generally credited with having introduced the so-called ‘Christmas’ tree into England, having brought the custom from his native Germany in 1841. Strictly speaking this is inaccurate, for Christmas trees were actually introduced into Britain during the 1830s and it wasn’t until 1848 … when the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle … that they started to become popular. But did the idea of the Christmas tree originate in Germany or did the Germans copy some other nation in this matter?
The Encyclopædia Britannica, the font (or ‘fount’, whichever you prefer) of all wisdom prior to the invention of the internet, has this to say on the subject of what we call ‘Christmas’ trees: “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.” And to find out how long this custom had been around, we need to know when the ancient Egyptians lived. Cue Dr Joyce Tyldesley BA, DPhil, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. “The dynastic period (of Egyptian history) started with the reign of Egypt’s first king, Narmer, in approximately 3100 BCE, and ended with the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE. However, the dynastic period should be seen as part of a much longer, continuous history.” So ‘ancient Egyptians’ take us back, let’s say, 5 000 years, which means that the use of evergreen plants at the turn of the year goes back a long way in history.
Our ancestors in Egypt, in China, in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, all over Europe and, indeed, throughout the entire world had good cause to worry about what might happen at the winter solstice … the shortest day. Would the same thing happen again as had happened for as many years as they could remember? Would the days start to lengthen again? Or might the sun appear for ever shorter hours before it disappeared altogether? Small wonder that the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped the god Ra … the sun god … decorated their homes with green palm rushes in midwinter to celebrate Ra’s recovery from an ailment.
In Europe, the Druids … who are often dismissed as ‘pagans’ but were actually well-educated … decorated their temples with evergreen plants for everlasting life as the days started to lengthen; the Romans held a midwinter feast in honour of Saturn, their god of agriculture, using evergreen branches for decoration; and early Christians simply adapted this winter solstice festival to become a celebration of the birth of Jesus - Christmas. But we must travel to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and to the cities of Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia to find documentary evidence of the erection of actual trees to celebrate the New Year; and we don’t find a ‘Christmas’ tree like those we put up today until later in the sixteenth century in … you’ve guessed … Germany. And the rest, as they say, is history.