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Christmas Tree

Oh Christmas Prune


Jonathan van Bilsen

December 24, 2020

I realize this column is called the Story Behind the Person, but over the past few years, I have written several articles featuring Santa Claus, and thought it was time for something a little different.

Christmas is a great time of year. People are festive and happy and, instead of stressing on what presents to buy, turn their attention to sharing goodwill with all. I do love the traditions, and one of my favourites is going out into the woods, to cut down the most perfect Christmas tree in the world. Two years ago I went on a trip to Latvia and Estonia, each of which boasted the origin of the very first Christmas tree, ever.

I was intrigued when each of my guides showed me a plaque in the town square depicting the source of the Christmas tree. I was rather surprised, as I always assumed this particular Yuletide tradition originated in Germany. Well, it seems I was wrong.

The very first time the use of a Christmas tree shows up in history, is in the Estonian city of Tallinn. After a little checking, however, it seems a fraternity known as the 'Brotherhood of Blackheads', erected what is now considered to be the first tree, in the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia. Although both cities lay claim to the origin of the Christmas tree, Riga appears to win out.

The 'Brotherhood of Blackheads' was an association of local, unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners living in Livonia (what is now Estonia and Latvia). A few trees were raised in the town square and the Brotherhood of wife-less men would then dance around them. Later the trees were set on fire. I wonder if the group was called the 'Brotherhood of Blackheads', because they danced too close to the fire and were charred for life? The local word for 'tree' also meant mast or pole, and the 'tree' might have been a tree-shaped wooden candelabra rather than a 'real' tree. Undoubtedly, as they were bachelors, the group’s mandate had something to do with attracting a possible spouse. Perhaps he who had the largest tree won.

In the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, there is a plaque which is engraved with "The First New Year's Tree in Riga in 1510", in eight languages. The exact origin of the Christmas tree is vague, as histories were passed down through stories and tales, but it is now generally accepted that the source of our Christmas tree originates in this region.

One must wonder why a tree was set on fire, or even more quizzical, why a tree at all? Why not a wheelbarrow, or a handful of prunes? Maybe the people of the day had the foresight to keep us from singing 'Oh Christmas Prune, Oh Christmas Prune, How joyful are your symptoms..."

The Riga tree was the first time a tree was associated with the feast of Christmas, but fir trees have traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years. Pagans used branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, to remind them that spring was on its way. Even the Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia, celebrated on December 17.

Stands for trees had not yet been invented, so people would suspend the trees from chandeliers, using chains. If you couldn't afford a real tree, people would make pyramids of woods, decorated with paper, apples and candles. Sometimes the owners carried them from house to house to show them off, no doubt singing as they went.

In medieval Germany, ‘miracle plays’ were performed in front of Churches on Christmas Eve, and the wooden pyramid trees were displayed. In the early Catholic Church, the 24th of December was referred to as Adam and Eve's day, and the wooden trees represented the Garden of Eden. To advertise the event, the contraptions were paraded around town before the play started. The reason for the play was to share Bible stories with illiterate peasants.

Legend has it that the first person to bring a Christmas tree into a house, in the way we know it today, was the 16th century German preacher Martin Luther. One night before Christmas, he was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful, that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus. He decided to cut down the tree, bring it into his home and add a few candles, to represent the stars.

Another tale states that St. Boniface left England and travelled to Germany to preach to the pagan tribes. He came upon a group of pagans, worshipping an oak tree and about to sacrifice a young boy. St. Boniface (probably not a saint at the time), was so upset, he cut down the oak tree. To his amazement, a small fir tree sprang up from the roots of the oak, which St. Boniface used to show that Christianity was stronger than the pagan deities. His followers decorated the tree with candles, so that St. Boniface could preach to the pagans at night.

Another chronicle tells of a woodcutter and his family, gathered around the fire on Christmas Eve. After a knock on the door, the man was confronted by a poor little boy standing on the step, lost and alone. The forester welcomed him into his house and the family fed and washed the child, and put him to bed. The next morning, a choir of angels was singing, and the poor little boy had turned into the Christ Child. The Child went into the front garden, took a branch from a fir tree, and gave it to the family as a thank you for looking after him. The event was celebrated by bringing trees into people’s homes.

Regardless of the origin, my favourite tradition is driving to a farm, with saw in hand, sometimes riding on a wagon and search for the perfect Christmas tree. A cup of steamy hot chocolate, dogs frolicking in fresh snow, and carollers wassailing in the distance, looking for that one and only tree. Suddenly, there before you, stands your perfect gem, with what seems to be a bright light shining down on it. Only then can you truly understand the meaning of yet another Christmas tradition.

I sincerely wish each of you a very happy and safe Christmas season.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.

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