Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Christmas tree quickly spread and was met with limited resistance in the rural communities when it was first introduced - it prolonged a custom that was already familiar.
|Norwegian Christmas card, 1880: The National Library of Norway|
Already in 1605, notions of the Christmas tree was featured in anonymous records from Strasbourg in Alsace, telling about fir trees being placed in people's living rooms at Christmas, embellished with colorful paper roses, apples, cakes and the like. During the 1700's, the custom spread to Germany, and was expanded with new symbolic effects and features: candlelit branches, an imitation of the Betlehem star in the top, followed by a gift ceremony on Christmas Eve. The first known description of Christmas candles also originate from Strasbourg, in 1765. In the 1790s, paintings of candlelit Christmas trees occur. In the 1840s, Christmas trees had gained a place among wealthy families in all the larger German cities, and from there on, the custom spread to the rural communities.
The first to bring the Christmas tree to Denmark, were supposedly German dignitary families who immigrated to Copenhagen around 1810. However, until 1850, the practice rarely occurred among other than landlords and the city's civil servants, as was the case in Norway as well. The great breakthrough came in the 1870s-1880s, and the influence can be traced in a similar fashion as in Germany: springing from the wealthy, to the broad sections of the population in urban and rural communities.
The most ardent proponents of the new custom were found among priests and teachers. In Jølster, in western Norway, an old man recounted that, as a child, he attended a Christmas party at the vicorage in 1876: "We came in from the kitchen into the living room and saw the Christmas tree. It was like coming into the holy of holies."
|"There was always a sense of feast and excitement associated with the excursion"|
The Christmas tree was chopped and brought to the farm in due time before Christmas Eve. In case of great snowfall and heavy lead, it was convenient to have decided for appropriate tree in advance, and there was always a sense of feast and excitement associated with the excursion and return.
"It had to be tall enough to catch the ceiling and were transported home on the toboggan of us children. At that point, we had been acquainted with it for some time, for it was carefully chosen for our Christmas tree that very same summer. "
In the cities, the new custom led to rapid growth in the sale of Christmas trees. In Oslo, it was considered warmhearted charity to provide poor people with free-of-charge trees; it was contrary to the meaning of the festival that not everyone could afford to celebrate it in a full-fledged way. The Christmas tree had become a focal point on common values and an expression of social equality.
As a rule, it was the children's privilege to decorate the tree on the morning of Christmas Eve, while the adults completed the final preparations. In older times however, and in affluent families, the children were often left outside, and had to wait in tension behind closed doors while the parents carried out the decorations in the room next door. The great moment arose when the doors were opened, and the tree was revealed in all its splendor.
|Illustration for Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale "The Fir Tree", |
by Danish artist Svend Otto Sørensen
From Gildeskål in northern Norway it has been told: "Mother and father disappeared and we sat listening to the sounds in the living room: now they decorated the Christmas tree, now they brought in the presents. It was nice and warm in there, for the fire had been burning since early morning. And then finally the doors were opened. I’ll never forget the wonderful, indescribable feeling of the sight of the decorated Christmas tree with candlelight. And on the table with the fine cloth on, there were bowls with cakes and fruits and nuts, bottles of wine and holstein mead and shiny glasses."
The oldest Christmas decorations were simple and homemade: molded candles with old-fashioned holders, colorful paperchains, flowers and tiny wicker baskets, small figurines of pastries, some fruit (apples, raisins, oranges) and other Christmas treats to fill in the baskets. A man from Evanger in western Norway wrote in 1964: “But what sparkled most was the silver ribbon from mother's wedding dress, which she had kept hidden; and of course, the star in the top.”
It is still unclear when it became custom to walk around the tree and sing Christmas songs. From the 16th century there are records from Germany, telling about people decorating a tree outside, dancing around it at Christmas or New Year’s. To do that at home together with family members and close friends was a form of privatization that happened a lot later. The Danish poet B.S. Ingemann mentioned the custom in 1818, and from Denmark it probably came to Norway with the introduction of the Christmas tree in the mid 1800's.
|Danish Christmas card, probably 1900. The Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen|
It was characteristic of the home's Christmas tree that it was consistently a part of to the entire feast, not just a particular day. It gave rise to social gatherings at home both before and after New Year’s. Such Christmas visits often coincided with the "harvesting" of the tree, i.e. to strip it for edible treats and other decorations and distribute the sweets. This was the children's field of expertise, a popular “after-party” and a solemn occasion they had all to themselves.
Nowadays, electrical lighting has helped extend the life of the Christmas tree. In thousands of gardens, bushes and trees with lit light bulbs are twinkling in the winter darkness several weeks into the new year. In some cases, this form of privatization of the public, outdoor Christmas tree can easily be perceived as waste of resources and status symbol for wealthy homeowners.
In most cases, however, this practice is most likely a symbolic expression, more than socially conditioned. The lights bring some of the Christmas spirit and atmosphere into the future, keeping the memory of the Christmas feast alive.
Thou green and glittering tree, good day!Released in 1951, the following short film, loosely translated to "The Chime of Church Bells", was created as a Christmas greeting by Oslo Cinemas. Inviting the audience to sing along with the carols, the film truly captures some of the magic and fairy dust many of us associate with our childhood's Christmas - regardsless of age and mother tongue. The song performed by the end of the film, is one of the most well-known Scandinavian Christmas songs to date, written by German-Danish composer Cristoph E.F. Weyse, and Danish poet Johan Krohn. First published in Denmark in 1866, the lyrics were translated to Norwegian in 1892, bearing the title Song to the Christmas Tree. Nowadays, however, it is simply known by the first line of the first verse, emphasizing the song as a tribute and salute to the tree:
Thou green and glittering tree, good day!
With joy and gladness we hial your comingt;
Bedecked with candles and spangles gay,
Your topmost star is as sunlight dawning!
Our hearts' reminder, of Heaven's splendor,
Our hearts' reminder of Heaven's splendor,
And God's great love, And God's great love.
- Ørnulf Hodne (1996). Jul i Norge. Gamle og nye tradisjoner. Cappelen.
- Stovner, Ina Louise. (2018, 8. februar). Juletre. I Store norske leksikon: https://snl.no/juletre
- Thank you to https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/thou_green_and_glittering_tree.htm for a beautiful translation of Du grønne glitrende tre, goddag!