Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, is usually credited with having introduced the Christmas tree into England in 1840. However, the honour of establishing this tradition in the United Kingdom rightfully belongs to ‘good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.
Legend has it that Queen Charlotte’s compatriot, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree. One winter’s night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.
Certainly by 1605 decorated Christmas trees had made their appearance in Southern Germany. For in that year an anonymous writer recorded how at Yuletide the inhabitants of Strasburg ‘set up fir trees in the parlours … and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.’
In other parts of Germany box trees or yews were brought indoors at Christmas instead of firs. And in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, where Queen Charlotte grew up, it was the custom to deck out a single yew branch.
Why are yews in churchyards?
Firstly, there are, of course, (ancient) yews outside churchyards as well. But in woodlands they don’t grow so big and impressive as in churchyards because they have less light and space. Also, Britain has lost most of its ancient woodland, and even more so, lost most of the wild yews due to the early medieval longbow production. Churchyards are protective enclosures. But there is much more to it:
Investigating the yew from the viewpoint of comparative religious studies we come across an astonishing degree of parallels in the way this tree was perceived and treated by otherwise the most different cultures and times. In a nutshell, we can say that the three main themes which occur time and again in yew traditions are:
a) the sacred (the yew as part of a sanctuary, or being the sanctuary, e.g. the medieval tree sanctuary at Uppsala, Sweden; yews in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan)
b) death and burial rites (e.g. British Isles, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Japan)
c) kingship, royal family, leadership (e.g. Ireland, Russia, Japan).
In many pre-Christian religions (e.g. in ancient Greece) the yew had been connected with the journey to the underworld, with the gate of death and the soul’s transition from this life to the next. For all we can say, the yew was seen as a kind of protector of the soul during this delicate process. In Druidic Britain, this was conceived as part of the ‘natural law of reincarnation’ (i.e. a soul becomes reborn on earth as another person). As an evergreen plant the yew was a symbol for the regenerative power of nature. As a very ancient tree indeed it was the most perfect symbol for everlasting life. In Christianity, only the pretext changed: together with other evergreens the yew was acknowledged as a symbol for the Resurrection and particularly employed at Easter celebrations.
It is feasible that some of the ancient yews are older than the adjacent church buildings because Christianity took over countless sacred places from the previous religious traditions. In 601 Pope Gregory advised not to destroy places of Pagan worship but to convert them into Christian Churches.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) visited Mecklenburg-Strelitz in December, 1798, and was much struck by the yew-branch ceremony that he witnessed there, the following account of which he wrote in a letter to his wife dated April 23rd, 1799: ‘On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlours is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough … and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces’.
Research into customs of various cultures shows that greenery was often brought into homes at the time of the winter solstice. It symbolised life in the midst of death in many cultures. The Romans were known to deck their homes with evergreens during of Kalends of January 15. Living trees were also brought into homes during the old Germany feast of Yule, which originally was a two month feast beginning in November. The Yule tree was planted in a tub and brought into the home. But there is no evidence that the Christmas tree is a direct descendent of the Yule tree. Evidence does point to the Paradise tree however. This story goes back to the 11th century religious plays. One of the most popular was the Paradise Play. The play depicted the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from Paradise. The only prop on the stage was the Paradise tree, a fir tree adorned with apples. The play would end with the promise of the coming Savior and His Incarnation. The people had grown so accustomed to the Paradise tree, that they began putting their own Paradise tree up in their homes on December 24.
A Merry Christmas and Prosperous New Year to all our Readers
John and Valérie, from Canberra, Christmas, 2017!