Just Whose Tree Is it, Anyway?


December 25, 1991|By SIMON SCHAMA | SIMON SCHAMA,New York Times Special Features

Cambridge, Massachusetts. -- Sorry, America, but you owe the Christmas tree to King George III.

It was homesick Hessian mercenaries, fighting with the British and pining for the Tannenbaum during the Revolutionary War, who first cut fir crowns for their holiday tables, decorated with candles. It did not take long, though, for Americans to adopt the custom. By the 1830s and 1840s, German immigrants had spread the custom throughout Eastern cities.

The truth, though, is that the Tannenbaum has precious little to do with Christian celebration and a lot to do with the stubborn survival through the millennia of pagan rituals of winter light and rebirth.

Indeed, Christmas itself was superimposed over the ancient festivals that celebrated the winter solstice; the change from the depths of darkness, ''the world's midnight'' as John Donne called it, to the imperceptible increase of daylight.

In the third century, when sun cults such as the Mithraic religion of Persia found their way to Rome, days in December were given over to celebrate the rebirth of Sol Invictus: the invincible sun. In all likelihood both Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light and national redemption, and Christmas were designed to compete with the persistence of idolatrous sun worship.

The early church in Rome had a particularly hard battle against the weeklong Saturnalia, which began Dec. 17, and the Kalends, which greeted the New Year. The first was a time of licensed misrule, often presided over by a lord of merriment, not so much Santa as fat Saturn himself, the orgiast of eating, drinking and other naughtiness.

It was during Kalends, when the year changed, however, that gifts were ritually exchanged, often tied to boughs of greenery.

The fulminating St. John Chrysostom urged no compromise with heathen abominations. But pragmatism shrewdly prevailed. Since there was no general agreement about the exact date of the birth of Jesus -- Passover was another popular suggestion -- it must have seemed helpful to have it supersede Saturnalia, which petered out on its seventh day, Dec. 24.

So the rebirth of the sun became instead the birth of the Son of God, and the bonfires and candles that had greeted the return of daylight were now taken to celebrate the dawning of the Light of the World.

In the same way the Kalends were replaced by the Feast of the Epiphany and the gifts and trinkets that pagan Romans had given each other became instead the homage paid by the three kings.

By the middle of the fourth century, the basic features of the Christmas calendar were set for good. The same ritual takeover and make-over was eventually applied to the cults of sacred trees.

Trees provided the abodes of the divinities: the olives of Artemis, the myrtles of Aphrodite. In ancient Egypt date palms were set up in houses to celebrate the winter solstice and in Northern Europe, fire accompanied the coming of Yule.

To complete the grafting of new Christian faith on to old pagan beliefs, the medieval church began to emphasize the iconic significance of Eden's other tree -- the Tree of Life, which, since the expulsion of Adam and Eve, had stood guarded by an angel with a flaming sword.

In illuminated manuscripts, frescoes and paintings the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life became emblems, respectively, of the Fall and of the Redemption.

JTC Sometimes a single tree was shown with its branches bare on one side and in leaf on the other. At others the cross itself was shown in leaf, in fruit or evergreen as the symbol of resurrection: new life sprouting in the winter of the soul.

Stories of trees that miraculously bloomed at Christmas multiplied throughout late medieval Europe. Fifteenth century citizens of Nuremburg venerated a tree that was said to bear apples on Christmas Eve.

During the Reformation in Germany all these themes came together to create the image of the evergreen tree, the Tannenbaum, radiant with light, as the symbol of reborn hope.

A spirited German princess, Liselotte of Palts, attempted to introduce the boxwood sempervivens she had enjoyed as a child in Hanover to the court of Louis XIV, where she was married to the King's brother, Philippe of Orleans, but was rebuffed as a Teutonic bumpkin.

Prince Albert of Sax-Coburg-Gotha had better luck. In 1848, he gave a 40-foot Tannenbaum to his wife, the young Queen Victoria. An engraving showed the royal couple and their four children standing by a tree festooned with candles, ornaments, ribbons and trinkets.

That popular engraving found its way into illustrated magazines such as Godey's Lady's Book in the United States.

In 1851, an immense Christmas tree had adorned the Crystal Palace exhibition in London. Five years later, President Franklin Pierce did his bit for American Manifest Destiny by inaugurating the custom of a presidential tree.

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