Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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THE CHRISTMAS-TREE
happened on December 24, but on January 5, the right day according to the Old Style, the thorn blossomed as usual.* 26
Let us turn to the customs of the Roman Empire which may be in part responsible for the German Christmas-tree. The practice of adorning houses with evergreens at the January Kalends was common throughout the Empire, as we learn from Libanius, Tertullian, and Chrysostom. A grim denunciation of such decorations and the lights which accompanied them may be quoted from Tertullian ; it makes a pregnant contrast of pagan and Christian. " Let them," he says of the heathen, " kindle lamps, they who have no light ; let them fix on the doorposts laurels which shall afterwards be burnt, they for whom fire is close at hand ; meet for them are testimonies of darkness and auguries of punishment. But thou," he says to the Christian, " art a light of the world and a tree that is ever green ; if thou hast renounced temples, make not a temple of thy own house-door." 27
That these New Year practices of the Empire had to do with the W'eihnachtsbaum is very possible, but on the other hand it has closer parallels in certain folk-customs that in no way suggest Roman or Greek influence. Not only at Christmas are cere­monial " trees" to be found in Germany. In the Erzgebirge there is dancing at the summer solstice round " St. John's tree," a pyramid decked with garlands and flowers, and lit up at night by candles.28 At midsummer "in the towns of the Upper Harz Mountains tall fir-trees, with the bark peeled off their lower trunks, were set up in open places and decked with flowers and eggs, which were painted yellow and red. Round these trees the young folk danced by day and the old folk in the evening ";29 while on Dutch ground in Gelderland and Limburg at the beginning of May trees were adorned with lights.30
Nearer to Christmas is a New Year's custom found in some
* At Wormesley in Herefordshire there is a Holy Thorn which is still believed to blossom exactly at twelve o'clock on Twelfth Night. "The blossoms are thought to open at midnight, and drop off about an hour afterwards. A piece of thorn gathered at thi hour brings luck, if kept for the rest of the year." As recently as 1908 about forty people went to see the thorn blossom at this time (see E. M. Leather, "The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire" [London, 1912], 17).
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