‘Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.’Larry Wilde: The Merriest Book of Christmas 1991
A common sight around the Cape Peninsula come December each year are the roadside vendors of Christmas ‘trees’. We qualify the word ‘tree’ here for the simple reason that they are actually portions of trees; normally branches cut from pine trees, or saplings that have been cut down. Many a car that is occupied by smiling parents, excited children and a large green bough in the back seat can be seen heading along the highways and byways of the suburbs. A lot of the vendors are supporters of worthy charities, and given that the trees that are culled are alien pines – often seeded in-between rows of neatly planned plantations, needing to be cut down, or invasively growing in fynbos or on farms – the cause is a worthy one all round.
But why a tree in the first place? The Nativity has no mention of pine or fir trees (especially ones with blinking lights strung around them), and certainly here in sunny South Africa, snow covered branches aren’t particularly prevalent in summer time. As with most current Christmas traditions, the Christmas tree is a relatively new addition to the list of cultural practices during the festive season. The earliest references to Christmas trees is found in Renaissance Germany, during the 16th century. (We did say ‘relatively new’ above.) Martin Luther’s name is associated with the first use of an evergreen tree, as he is said to have placed lighted candles on the branches of a tree. Not a Fire Wise Lutheran, it seems. The first definite representation of a Christmas tree is to be found in Alsace, now in France but part of Germany at the time. It is a carving on a keystone in a private home, and is dated 1576. Given that Martin Luther shuffled off some thirty years earlier, it is possible that the tradition had spread across the country by then. Or perhaps Martin had dinner with the family at some earlier time? We’ll never know.
Another opinion, which is more likely to be a modern interpretation of ancient history, is that the Christmas tree represented the ‘tree of paradise’ in the ‘mystery plays’, and was accordingly decorated with apples representing the forbidden fruit. In time, or so the story goes, the apples were replaced by shiny red balls, and other decorations were added to symbolise various aspects of Biblical canon. But, as with all traditions that are allied to religious beliefs, finding the truth among the fables is difficult. Portugal also has a claim on the earliest trees, and there is a quote from the end of the Middle Ages Cistercian Order that states unequivocally ‘On the Christmas eve, you will look for a large Branch of green laurel, and you shall reap many red oranges, and place them on the branches that come of the laurel…’ And as always, it depended on which branch of the faith you worshipped; all others save your own were, in those days, heretical, so each church developed their own traditional belief systems. Some ideas were even more rooted in ancient history: according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica ‘The use of evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands to symbolise eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews.’ Taking this statement to its logical conclusion leads us to the fact that Christmas trees may well have pre-dated Christmas, which is a paradoxical notion. When writer H.P Lovecraft wrote ‘It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas, though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and Mankind’ perhaps he was reflecting on this thought.
Whatever the background and origin, Christmas trees are firmly part of Christmas worldwide, and are to be found everywhere the celebration is held, as well as many places where Christmas is not officially recognised. The raising of trees in public spaces like the White House in Washington, Trafalgar Square in London and in New York attracts huge crowds each year (2020 excluded, sadly), and virtually all private homes in Western civilisation have a tree of some sort under which Santa Claus/Father Christmas can deposit presents on Christmas morning. Decorating the tree each year is a time that many families worldwide enjoy immensely, and this in itself in this troubled world is magical. There can be no more heart-warming sight than seeing children light up with pure joy on Christmas morning as they lay eyes on the parcels waiting beneath the decorated boughs. And spare thoughts for those who don’t have the means to celebrate; it is a time to open hearts and pockets to those in need. Perhaps the spirit of the Christmas tree – whatever its origins – can bring joy to all.
At Waterfront Charters we are bringing joy through our festive cruises; even curfews can’t stop the fun. Our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Champagne Sunset Cruises are perfect opportunities to reflect on the spirit of Christmas with family and friends, and our New Year’s Eve Champagne Sunset Cruise is ideal to wave off a troubled year and welcome a fresh start in 2021 – with a few glasses of complimentary Prosecco, a most delicious way to toast the New Year!
To all our clients, friends, staff and crew members: may you enjoy a peaceful and happy Christmas, and may there be beautiful presents beneath your Christmas trees.