Evergreen trees have a very ancient association with the winter solstice. The Celtic builders of Carnac and Stonehenge considered the solstice a time of rebirth and regarded the yew as a symbol of immortality. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule, the return of their sun god after the longest night of the year. They brought the biggest fir tree they could find into the hall where it burned for about 12 days as they feasted and enjoyed hearing stories about their gods.
The Yule log tradition is the source of the buche de Noel, a special Christmas cake popular in France and Belgium (photo below). Long ago I watched Julia Child make one over the course of three shows. First she made the decorations. Next she made the cake and filling. In the last installment, she assembled the final product. Not being a baker, I would never attempt to make one, but the internet offers the challenging directions as well as a video of Julia making it.
The earliest known Christmas trees were outdoor affairs. In 1441, a group of young men set up a tree in the main square of Tallinn, a Baltic seaport in Estonia. The old city is filled with character and charm. One can imagine the populace gathering around the tree singing and dancing before guild members set it ablaze! This riff on the Yule log spread throughout the region. In 1510, the folks of Bremen, in Germany, raised the bar by decorating their tree with apples, pretzels and paper flowers. And believe it or not, Martin Luther may have been the first to have a lighted indoor tree because he wanted his children to experience seeing starlight through evergreen branches.
By the early 1600s, Christmas trees were common in German homes. At first they were decorated with apples and other edible treats. Soon glassmakers began making ornaments shaped like the treats and this quickly became standard practice. Apples symbolized immortality to the ancient Celts and Norsemen. In Germany, the apples reminded folks of the Garden of Eden. On Christmas Eve, they would stage plays about Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden as a prelude to celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas. German immigrants brought the Christmas tree custom to the United States.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, her German consort, were the trendsetters of mid- nineteenth century England. In 1848, a paper published a picture of the royal family celebrating Christmas around their decorated tree. The practice immediately became popular throughout the land.
Evergreen trees have been a part of winter solstice observances for thousands of years. Over time their significance has changed to reflect varying customs and beliefs. The Christmas tree remains at the center of the celebration, from the effort of putting
it up and the gatherings around it, to the time we put away the ornaments and the memories they hold.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett wishes all her readers a merry Christmas and a happy new year of gardening!