Lori Anderson: Spruce yourself up for Christmas
YAWN, stretch, so it’s 7am on Saturday, 30 November; what are you doing today? Me? I’m priming myself to leap like a gazelle from bed, ready to hotfoot it down to my local purveyor of roots and shoots to purchase my Christmas tree.
Now don’t give me your Edward Munch face of toffee-nosed distress; yes, I’m quite aware that I’m rather early, but on this I flout convention for I firmly believe in celebrating an Advent Christmas and suggest you do too.
It could be worse. I have a friend in Brisbane who celebrates a retail Christmas. This means that her Christmas tree is erected in its full sequinned glory at the tail-end of October in time to greet the first of the festive adverts. I’m with you, that’s a little bit too early but I tell you, Christmas Eve is far too late.
For even those who stick staunchly to the proscribed rules of elevating the noble fir 12 days before Christmas are still too late in my mind. In the northern hemisphere, we are stumbling around in the darkness of Plato’s cave right now, so please someone switch on the light. Ken Bruce on Radio 2 has also fallen for an Advent Christmas by announcing on Thursday to his listeners that he’s already put up the “lit twigs” and declaring: “I don’t care, I’m feeling festive.”
I’m not asking you to get naked and dance around it, though that’s not a bad way to pass a dank Saturday night in Scotland in December. Just push propriety aside and go towards the twinkling lights. The season of profligacy is upon us, don’t hold back. Deck those halls, trim those trees, pour those egg nog cocktails and ask yourself honestly if your life will be richer, fuller, brighter and gayer by waiting in grey darkness like a good Presbyterian for another 12 nights before unwrapping the tree from its netting and giving it a good, pagan hug?
Frankly, when it comes to Christmas I won’t have a word spoken against the Presbyterians, for was it not Martin Luther who helped bequeath the Christmas tree to the world? Well, he did at least add illuminated candles which begat the magic of fairy lights to the world and did not the Papacy sullenly wait until 1982 before John Paul II finally acquiesced and erected a festive tree in the Vatican to much chagrin and tut-tutting? The provenance of Christmas, Jesus Christ and his crib moved gently aside, is Germanic. We, however, can lay claim to Christmas cards, Christmas crackers, and the adjective “Merry” when placed adjacent to Christmas. It was first noted in 1699 by an English admiral then disappeared from the literary record until Charles Dickens resurrected it 1843 when he published A Christmas Carol.
At the heart of Christmas, baby in the crib moved gently aside once again, oh and let’s shunt the presents too, is surely the Christmas tree, and for this we have to thank the combination of a brave saint and agreeable Huns. For tree worship had long been a part of the pagan religion, and according to Stephanus the hagiographer writing in the 8th century, it was Saint Boniface who recognised the godly qualities of the fir tree.
The ancient story tells that he chopped down an oak tree which was either dedicated to the worship of Thor or set to be used as a stake for the sacrifice of a child; if it was the latter he might be seen to have been assisting in the project. He then either watched in amazement as a fir tree sprang up in its place or directed the tribe’s attention away from the oak towards a nearby fir which he praised for its triangular shape which not only pointed up towards Heaven but whose three sides mirrored the Holy Trinity.
By the 11th century the fir tree had a leading role as the “tree of life” in the “mystery plays” which had become popular across Europe and 400 years later every home in the Alsace region had one of their own for Christmas. So many trees were cut down in December that a law was passed to limit fir trees to one per home. Martin Luther, by some accounts, added the candles to the festive tree which eventually arrived in England with the Hanovers in the early 18th century, but initially the ustom did not spread beyond the royal residences. Queen Victoria, who adored the tree as a child, helped to popularise the tradition with the British public in the 19th century.
Tinsel, those delicate nocilucent tresses desired by every tree, also emanate from Germany where, in 1610, strips of silver were shredded to a wafer-thin curl and draped on the trees of the wealthy.
There is a shadow side to my custom of putting up the Christmas tree on the first of December and that is that when Janus starts to look forward at the beginning of the New Year I cannot bear to see a single Poinsettia or spindle of spruce around the house. By 2 January it is as if Agent Orange has passed through my home.
There was one final thing that the Germans gave us and which I only learned of this week. It is what I will feel tomorrow evening when the tree is standing resplendent in a garland of white roses and simple white lights, when the festive wreath is fixed to the front door and two miniature fir trees stand sentry – it is the feeling embodied in the word gemutlichkeit, which means a situation that induces “a cheerful mood, peace of mind, belonging and cosiness”. So why wait, bring the warmth of gemutlichkeit to your home today.