Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 12: Manger vs. Tree

We finish up our look at Christmas with the Christmas tree. It's a perfect summation of the essential duality of Christmas traditions, of conflict between Christian and pagan, Protestant and Catholic, Northern Europe vs. South, and private vs. public.

The Christmas tree as object of veneration obviously goes back to Northern European pagan practices, either Norse or Celtic. These traditions survived the figurative axe of Saint Boniface and found themselves reborn in the years following the Protestant Reformation, in Lutheran regions of Germany. Protestants found the sturdy tannenbaum an antidote to the idolatrous Papist practice of the Christmas creche.

These early Christmas trees were found in either communal-civic or wealthy private hands. Guildhalls displayed the very first Christmas trees that are identifiable in modern terms, and throughout the rest of the early modern period, wealthy German families could afford to have a tree chopped down, moved into the house, and decorated with rich baubles.

Indeed, the private ownership of a Christmas tree was seen, right up until the middle of the 20th century, as a sign of great wealth in all the Germanic-Protestant nations where it was common. This is probably why so many civic tree-lighting ceremonies survive down to this day.

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