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THE CHRISTMAS TREE.
FROM THE GERMAN OF SCHEFFER.
“What was and is more influential in Germany than religious thought?” This is the question of Leopold Ranke, one of our greatest historians. It is not depth and extent of knowledge, but inwardness and contemplativeness of heart, that has enabled us Germans to give to God the supremacy over our whole existence.
The all-ruling principle of piety belongs to the freshness, joyousness, and freedom of our national consciousness-piety, that heavenly consecration of earthly life and toil, the unity and union of the most diverse spheres under the highest of all conceptions. At no other Christian festival does this present itself so clearly, so lively, and, I should like to say, so plastically to our minds, as at Christmas: Christmas, which celebrates the advent of the purest love to our race, which has laid the basis of a family life such as was not known to ante-Christian antiquity, and could not be properly estimated by it. Christmas exhibits this fact not so much in its ecclesiastical, as in its domestic celebration. There is no other festival which beams with so full
, so joyous, and so blessed rays into the quiet circle of family life, into the hearts of fathers and mothers, and, above all, into the world of the dear little children; there is no other festival which unfolds and reveals, in its customs, the might of religious thought, so simply and magnificently, as Christmas and its celebration.
No matter if, in the first place, it is the gifts and presents which fill the heart with joy and longing; still, inasmuch as these gifts pass with the children as gifts of the Christ-child, the proper centre and object of the festival is not forgotten. And when once the child has learned to recognize that earthly, paternal, and maternal love, which secretly and surprisingly prepares all these festival presents for it, it learns also to look up in thankful faith to the hand of its invisible Father, who prepared, for all, the first and greatest Christmas gift; to that love which gave all
, and which finds only a faint copy and earthly emblem in the kindness of parents, friends, and relatives.
Just this religious thought is the power which elevates the festival of Christmas and its celebration above every other purely human festival with gifts and surprises. The distribution of Christmas gifts in the domestic circle, belongs to the most pleasant pictures and events of the life of the heart, to the most refreshing memories of the past, to the gentlest encouragements to love Him in return who first loved us. The pleasant centre of the celebration of Christmas in Germany, is the Christmas Tree, whose lights and gifts and fruits collect all around it in enchanting bliss. It is the Christmas tree in whose pleasant radiance we will now all gather and unite in cheerful and grateful joy.
“ The Christmas tree”—its heathen origin, its Biblical back-ground, its symbolical meaning,—these are the three stand-points whence we have to direct our view to this Christian-Germanic symbol of our faith.
The Christmas tree has its history, and this history is a fragment of the history of the German people, and of the Christian Church in our beloved fatherland. It must not, therefore, surprise us that this history, like all others, is lost in the dim twilight of the myths.
The Christmas tree is genuinely German in its origin. Thence it happens that it is found among the Germans alone, and that, like a stranger, it has wandered from Germany to all other lands. German poetry, German feeling, and German piety have planted the Christmas tree, have cultivated it and decorated it with its peculiar splendor. The English have no burning, radiant Christmas tree. Scarcely a remnant of their old Saxon origin remains in their habit of adorning rooms, shops, and sacred places with branches of holly, in absence of the German fir tree. The holly is also popularly called Christ-thorn, because, according to tradition, the crown for the “Sacred Head now wounded” was wovert of its branches. It is quite characteristic that, in England, where every thing is made of iron, efforts have lately been made to imitate the German fir tree in cast iron, and that gas is made to flow through the hollow branches of the "iron wood,” which serves to illuminate the metal tree. This genuinely English imitation of German custom, is called “Improved German Christmas Trees.”
The French became acquainted with the Christmas tree only in this century. They say that the Duchess of Orleans introduced it at Court, and so into the circles of the highest society, during the reign of the "citizen king,” Louis Philippe. The custom of distributing gifts at this festival, is still unknown in France. It is customary to give and receive presents at New Year, just as among the Jewish families among us. The Slavic nations received the Christmas tree also from the Germans. In foreign countries it gleams in the palaces of the rich alone, who have learned to love it, by seeing it in German families or on journeys abroad.
But, in our fatherland, it beams from house to house, even in the lowliest cottages of the poor, and precisely here it has its most blessed home. German sailors, German emigrants, German missionaries have spread the German Christmas tree over all the earth. Beneath the equator, amid polar ice, in America, Africa, Australia, on the high seas, in the lonely block-house of the western pioneer, at the missionary station, in the brilliant saloon of the German merchant in the seaboard city, in the peaceful shop of the artisan, in the stirring camp of the soldier, in the Old and in the New world, the Christmas tree is erected, lighted, and adorned. The Christmas tree stands, the highest honor and last usage with the numerous German emigrants; for, apart from the religious feelings, it awakens old and dear memories—memories of a beloved home, which, when forsaken, shines across the seas to them like a lost paradise.
How strange! the German who, in foreign lands, so willingly and docilely appropriates new customs, languages and views, holds fast his Christmas tree, with inward and unyielding love. It is just the contrast which he finds among distant strangers, which makes him cling to it, in the quiet, independent circle of his own family. The stranger seems not to be able
to understand it at all. They say—“The Freigemeindler,* in America, thrown together from every part of the globe and every stratum of society, consider the Christmas tree as a symbol of religious faith.”
For a long time the Christmas tree passed as a sign of confessional distinction between Protestant North Germany and Roman Catholic South Germany. Happily this distinction is now obviated. German Christians of all creeds are now united beneath the bright lights of the Christmas tree. The Protestant Christmas tree and the Roman Catholic “krippe” (that is, a plastic representation of the story of Christ's birth, in the manger at Bethlehem,) stand alongside of each other, on the tables of Christians of Germany. The Christmas tree is an heir loom from the rich, poetically earnest, and still joyous inheritance of our old ancestors.
The tree, standing so firmly with its roots in the earth, pointing and growing up with its branches so boldly to the Father of all, in heaven, enjoyed the greatest respect among the Germans. The gigantic trees of the primeval forests and groves, all gray with moss, were considered as places holy to the gods, as temples, dwelling-places, and tribunals of the celestial powers. And has not Christian architecture, especially in that style which the Italians derisively call Gothic (barbarous,) endeavored to imitate the living forest temples of nature, in works of stone, colonnades of slender pillars which, bending together, shape themselves into an arched roof? So great was the respect paid to trees by Germans, that they represented the whole structure of the universe under the figure of a tree, whose roots were concealed deep under the earth, and whose top reached up to Walhalla, and there furnished subsistence for the she-goat, whose milk—the chief nourishment of the ancient Germans—afforded refreshment to the heroes who fell in battle. Yggdrasil was the name of this wonderful universetree, which, like Atlas of the Greeks, bore up the structure of the heavens, and which remained in mysterious remembrance when the light of Christianity had scattered the gloomy shades of the deification of nature.
The holy tree was sometimes an ash—the world-ash, —sometimes an oak, the tree of life, sacred to the god Thor; as, for instance, the Thunder Oak, at Geismar, which fell beneath the blows of St. Boniface, and from the wood of which the "Apostle of St. German” built the first chapel. Again, it was a linden, which still, perchance, stands in the village, under which the old do gather to council and easy converse, and the young to play and danee.
The legend of Wölsing tells of an oak. King Wölsing had a mighty palace built, in the middle of which stood an oak, whose roots were deep under the palace, and whose branches covered it with shade.† They called this tree the "children-tree," I and the legend holds and teaches that the children came of this tree.
* Freigemeindler are such as have withdrawn from the orthodox churches, in order to worship God according to their own ideas, which are rationalistic to the last degree. They are principally from Germany.—Tr.
† Thence, perhaps, is the custom observed by masons and carpenters, who, when they have finished their work upon a house, form a procession, carrying a green tree, trimmed with ribbons, handkerchiefs, and other presents. This tree is finally placed on the highest point of the gable, or on the ridge-pole of the frame-work.
| Kinderstamm: whence the German terms, "abstammen," "stamvater,” “volksstamm," "stamm baum,” etc.
Besides the oak, the slender beech, with its pillared halls of branches meeting overhead, was held sacred by the Germans. They cut little sticks (stäbe) from the beech, and upon these wrote mysterious signs,
runen;" these they threw down upon the ground, then gathered them up, and made predictions from the accidental order of their arrangement. Our wellknown words, buch, buchstabe, and lesen, have preserved the memory of this ancient religious practice down to this present hour. May not also the Christmas tree have originated in this old German conception? The objection could be urged, that the Christmas tree is a fir tree, not an ash nor oak, not a beech, nor linden. Why, then, was the fir tree chosen for this purpose ?
This question admits of a two-fold answer.
In many places, especially in large cities, and in regions destitute of fir trees, small, green and highly ornamented pyramids are found, even to this day, on the table, instead of Christmas trees.
The pyramid reminds us at once of Egypt.. According to Creuzer, the palm was, in Egypt, the symbol of the annual cycle, because it puts forth new branches every month. This symbol of the year became also the sign of the great anti-Christian world-year, and in its wandering to the west, the fir tree came to take its place. This last order is, in our opinion, just the reverse. The pyramid, decorated with green and illuminated with light, is only a surrogate for the German fir tree; for the growth and form of the fir, in its triangular outlines, remind us so strikingly of the pyramid, that nothing could be more probable than such an exchange; and this would necessarily take place in localities where the fir is not found among the forest trees. Only in late years, since our means of communication have become so greatly increased, has it become possible to supply such districts with genuine, fresh Christmas trees.
Inasmuch as Christmas, in Germany, comes in the winter, the choice of the majestic, evergreen fir tree becomes a matter of course. Besides this, the fact is of account, that the old Germans celebrated the merry yule festival at the time of the winter solstice, and designated the 25th of December, "midranight,” or “mutternacht” (mothernight,) as being the natal festival of the sun. On this occasion they marched in procession at night, with green
and decorated branches of fir in their hands, out into the mysterious gloom of the forest, decorating and illuming, with torches, oaks, beeches, lindens, and, above all, the dark green fir trees.
Tacitus, the Roman historian, makes express mention of Tanfana,* as the name of a celebrated sacred place, destroyed by Cæsar's legions. In those ages
it was customary in Sweden to place green trees, either firs or pines, before the houses.
Adam, of Bremen, also mentions an evergreen tree, which stood before the temple of Upsal, not far from a spring, at which human sacrifices were often made.
In Switzerland, the Christmas tree bears the name of Bechteli—the similar names of Bechl or Weihnachtsbos, then, are common in the country around Salzburg. The original form for both was Berchtel, and referred to the goddess of spring, Berchta (Bertha, Hertha,) in honor of whom they set up a fir tree during the Twelve Nights.
* Tacit. Annalium, I. 51. The name Tanfana has been explained by luci patronas. May it not be compounded of the German word “Tanne,” and the Latin “fanum ?".
In the Vosges, on the west side of the Rhine, the people ornament, at New Year, a young fir tree with ribbons, egg-shells, and dolls. They call this tree a mai (May) and it reminds us of the Whitsuntide or May festival in Germany, which also refers to the festival of the goddess Maia, whence the month of May and the white birch (maie) receive their names. They put the tree upon a pump, and the young maidens dance around it in the night. It remains there the whole ensuing year.
Is it not strange that even the Holy Scriptures, in Luther's popular translation, present to us the fir tree in its peculiar significance ? No matter if the original does mean the cedar tree, the German people may think of the fir tree, which, standing on the highest part of the rock, and in gloomy magnificence reaching up to the clouds with its bold, pointed top, is, in the figurative language of the Old Testament prophets, the type of kings and princes, of the mighty and excellent of the earth, who overtop the rest of the people, the iniage of priests and prophets.
Most surprising is the prophecy of Hosea (xiv. 8,) which, in Luther's version, seems to point with a holy finger to the Christmas tree—“I am like a green fir tree,” etc. Thus prophesies the Old Testament, and it finds its most ample fulfilment at the threshhold of the New Covenant, and renews this fulfilment on the Christmas eve of every year, before the eyes of all.
CLEAVING TO CHRIST.
When a shipwrecked sailor, left to the mercy of the waves, has no help within reach or view but a spar or mast, how will he cling to it, how firmly will he clasp it! He will hold it as life itself. If a passing billow sweep him from it, with all his might he will make for it again, and grasp
it faster than ever. To part is to perish; and so he clings-and how anxiously! So the awakened sinner feels. The ocean of wrath surrounds him—its billows and its waves go over him. Hell yawns beneath to ingulf him. The vessel is an utter wreck. All its floating timbers are very rottenness. Oh, how he strains his eye searching for a mast, a plank, a spar! His eye rests on the only hope, the only rock in the wide ocean of wrath—the Rock of Ages, the Lord Jesus. He makes for the Saviourhe clasps Him—he cleaves to Him. Every terror of sin and of unworthiness that strives to loosen his hold, only makes him grasp with more terrible and death-like tenacity, for he knows that to part company is to perish. “I will not let Thee go." —Rev. R. B. Nichol.
ONE half of the world delights in uttering slander, and the other half in hearing it.