Monday, December 21, 2015

16th Century Christmas Trees

In 1521, the town clerk of Sélestat, a city in the Alsace region of France, made the following entry in the account register:

photo credit: Sé même 4 schillings aux gardes forestiers pour surveiller les mais à partir de la Saint Thomas

...likewise 4 shillings to the forest wardens for guarding the fir trees from St. Thomas's Day on

Historians now consider these words to be the first written mention of the Christmas tree. In the old liturgical cycle, St. Thomas's Day was celebrated on December 21, the night of the winter solstice. The fact that the town paid wardens to watch over the forest's trees from this night through Christmas indicates the trees were in danger of being cut down for decoration. Evidence of payment to the wardens for this period has also been found in the registers for 1546, 1555, and 1557, as well a schedule of fines set for those caught stealing a tree.

photo credit
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the faithful erected fir trees outside churches for use in Christmas mystery plays. The story of Adam and Eve required Eve to pluck fruit from a tree, and as fruit trees were bare at this time of year, fir trees stood substitute. Red apples adorned the green branches along with white unconsecrated hosts, representing the cycle of temptation and redemption. Given that the town needed to provide special protection to the forest trees during the Christmas season, it is not unreasonable to conclude that individuals might wish to decorate their own trees at home.

photo credit:
By 1600, city fathers erected a Christmas tree at the Hôtel de Ville. In a chronicle preserved with the account registers at Sélestat's Bibliothèque humaniste, the master of ceremonies of the time describes the ceremony surrounding the transport and presentation of the tree by the forest wardens, the process of its decoration, and the custom whereby the children of municipal employees would shake the tree's branches in order to dislodge sweet treats.

Each Christmas season, Sélestat organizes an exhibition in the nave of the Église Saint-Georges entitled "Christmas Tree Decorations Since 1521." Ten fir trees hang suspended from the ceiling, each displaying a different step in the evolution of the Christmas tree from the sixteenth century to the present day. The town celebrates the season with elaborate festivities: a Christmas village, special concerts, and, not surprisingly, a Christmas tree decorating contest.

I just finished decorating my own tree:

At least now I understand the significance of those red plastic apples I hung upon it!

Merry Christmas!

(This post originally appeared in December 2014.)


Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"In the old liturgical cycle, St. Thomas's Day was celebrated on December 21, the night of the winter solstice."

I think that by then winter solstice was sth like Julian Calendar St Lucy (Dec 13), and this was before calendar change to Gregorian.

In fact the difference between calendars, the Julian in force everywhere in Christendom of the West back then and the Gregorian not yet in force but representing more correctly seasons was 10 days, so :

DATE 13-XII-15xx
SEASON 23-XII-15xx

This means of course that St Thomas' Day had nothing to do with winter solstice per se.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for that clarification!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Thank YOU for the post!

Sn I know thought they were originally meant as Advent ONLY decorations.

Julianne Douglas said...

Merry Christmas! :)

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Merry Christmas!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

By the way, Alsace in France is since conquest by Louis XIV. In the time we deal with it is Elsass, in Holy Roman Empire (not Prussian "Empire" thank you!).

Best wishes for the last hours of Christmas!