Christmas Tree Folktales and Legends

Christmas Tree. Free from Clipart Panda.

Many countries have claimed that the Christmas tree originated in their country. Among those are France, the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden), and Germany. Accompanying these claims are many legends, and the first of these legends related to the Christmas tree has its roots in the thirteenth century. It comes from a romantic folktale told in France.

“[T]he hero finds a gigantic tree whose branches are covered with burning candles, some standing erect, the others upside down, and on the top the vision of a child, with a halo around his curly head. The knight asked the Pope for an explanation, who declared that the tree undoubtedly represented mankind, the child the Saviour, and the candles, good and bad human beings.”[1]

Christmas tree painting in 1877 by H. J. Overbeek. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The French were not the only ones to have a legend associated with the Christmas tree. There is also a Scandinavian legend from antiquity that has a Christian foundation. In it a “service tree” existed that sprang from blood-drenched soil of two lovers killed by violence during their innocence. “At certain nights in the Christmas season mysterious lights were seen flaming in its branches, that no wind could extinguish.”[2] Thus, the Christmas tree was born. Nevertheless, despite this Scandinavian legend, another Swedish version traces the custom of the Christmas tree to another source. According to them:

“In the autumn of 1632 the battle of Lutzen was fought, and among the victorious Swedes left lying upon the field was a Swedish officer shot through the hand. His wound was soon healed, and towards Christmas he was in a condition to undertake the journey homeward, but he wished first to evince his gratitude to the community, and to that he sought permission of the pastor to celebrate the Christmas holyday in the church, ‘according to the custom of his country.’ He obtained permission, and under his directions a fir-tree was set up and its branches lighted with numerous candles.”[3]

Martin Luther. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One legend about how the Christmas tree originated was retold by a nineteenth century professor of German literature at Glasgow University named Dr. Alexander Tille. He claimed that this legend involved the German professor of theology, composer, and priest, Martin Luther:

“Luther was travelling alone across the country. Above him the sky shone bright and clear with thousands and thousands of stars, and the picture impressed him so deeply that when he got home, he made it his first business to get a fire tree from the nearest wood, set it up in the house, and cover it over and over with wax-lights. The tree was to be a picture to his children of the evening sky, with its innumerable lights, which the Lord Jesus left that night to come down to earth.”[4]

Although this legend sounds reasonable, there is no proof that Luther ever wrote about the tree, the stars, or the lights, or that the story even dates to the Reformation. Moreover, this is not the only folktale that comes from Germany and is related to the Christmas tree. There is also another one that borders between the pagan and Christian days.

“[Winfrid] grasped the broad axes from the hand of Gregor, and striding to the oak, began to hew against it. Then the sole wonder in Winfrid’s life came to pass. For, as the bright blade circled above his head, and the flakes of wood flew from the deepening gash in the body of the tree, a whirling wind passed over the forest. It gripped the oak from its foundations. Backward it fell like a tower, groaning as it split asunder in four pieces. But just behind it, and unharmed by the ruin, stood a young fir tree, pointing a green spire towards the stars. Winfrid let the axe drop, and turned to speak to the people:

‘This little tree, a young child of the forest shall be your holy tree to-night. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.’

So, they took the tree from its place and carried it in joyful procession to the edge of the glade and laid it on one of the sledges. The horse tossed his head and drew bravely at its load, as if the new burden had lightened it. When they came to the village, Alvoid bade them open the doors of his great hall, and set the tree in the midst of it.”

First published image of a Christmas tree, in Hermann Bokum’s 1836, “The Stranger’s Gift.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although there may be various versions about the origination of the Christmas tree, what is known for certain is that by the early eighteenth century, Christmas trees could commonly be found in the upper Rhineland and were primarily a Protestant custom. After the Congress of Vienna ended in 1815, Prussian officials emigrated and the custom of a Christmas tree gained wider acceptance. Furthermore, by the early 19th century, the Christmas tree could be found not only in the Rhineland but also in France, Russia, Britain, Denmark, and the U.S.

References:

  • [1] Abergavenny Chronicle, “Legends of the Christ Tree,” December 23, 1898, p. 6.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] The Literary Digest v. 4 (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1892), p. 7.
  • [4] Albert Shaw, The Review of Reviews v. 5 (New York: Review of Reviews, 1892), p. 88.
  • [5] Abergavenny Chronicle, p. 6.

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