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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, [1912], at



The Christmas-tree a German Creation—Charm of the German Christmas—Early Christmas-trees—The Christmas Pyramid—Spread of the Tree in Modern Germany and other Countries—Origin of the Christmas-tree—Beliefs about Flowering Trees at Christmas—Evergreens at the Kalends—Non-German Parallels to the Christmas-tree—Christmas Decorations connected with Ancient Kalends Customs—Sacredness of Holly and Mistletoe—Floors strewn with Straw—Christmas and New Year Gifts, their Connection with the Roman Strenae and St. Nicholas—Present-giving in Various Countries—Christmas Cards.

Click to enlarge


From an engraving by Joseph Kellner.

The Christmas-tree.

The most widespread, and to children the most delightful, of all festal institutions is the Christmas-tree. Its picturesqueness and gay charm have made it spread rapidly all over Europe without roots in national tradition, for, as most people know, it is a German creation, and even in Germany it attained its present immense popularity only in the nineteenth century. To Germany, of course, one should go to see the tree in all its glory. Many people, indeed, maintain that no other Christmas can compare with the German Weihnacht. “It is,” writes Miss I. A. R. Wylie, “that childish, open-hearted simplicity which, so it seems to me, makes Christmas essentially German, or at any rate explains why it is that nowhere else in the world does it find so pure an expression. The German is himself simple, warm-hearted, unpretentious, with something at the bottom of him which is childlike in the best sense. He is the last ‘Naturmensch’ in civilization.” Christmas suits him “as well as a play suits an actor for whose character and temperament it has been especially written.” 12-1

p. 264 In Germany the Christmas-tree is not a luxury for well-to-do people as in England, but a necessity, the very centre of the festival; no one is too poor or too lonely to have one. There is something about a German Weihnachtsbaum—a romance and a wonder—that English Christmas-trees do not possess. For one thing, perhaps, in a land of forests the tree seems more in place; it is a kind of sacrament linking mankind to the mysteries of the woodland. Again the German tree is simply a thing of beauty and radiance; no utilitarian presents hang from its boughs—they are laid apart on a table—and the tree is purely splendour for splendour's sake. However tawdry it may look by day, at night it is a true thing of wonder, shining with countless lights and glittering ornaments, with fruit of gold and shimmering festoons of silver. Then there is the solemnity with which it is surrounded; the long secret preparations behind the closed doors, and, when Christmas Eve arrives, the sudden revelation of hidden glory. The Germans have quite a religious feeling for their Weihnachtsbaum, coming down, one may fancy, from some dim ancestral worship of the trees of the wood.

As Christmas draws near the market-place in a German town is filled with a miniature forest of firs; the trees are sold by old women in quaint costumes, and the shop-windows are full of candles and ornaments to deck them. Mrs. Alfred Sidgwick in her “Home Life in Germany” gives a delightful picture of such a Christmas market in “one of the old German cities in the hill country, when the streets and the open places are covered with crisp clean snow, and the mountains are white with it.... The air is cold and still, and heavy with the scent of the Christmas-trees brought from the forest for the pleasure of the children. Day by day you see the rows of them growing thinner, and if you go to the market on Christmas Eve itself you will find only a few trees left out in the cold. The market is empty, the peasants are harnessing their horses or their oxen, the women are packing up their unsold goods. In every home in the city one of the trees that scented the open air a week ago is shining now with lights and little gilded nuts and apples, and is helping to make that Christmas smell, all compact of the pine forest, wax p. 265 candles, cakes and painted toys, you must associate so long as you live with Christmas in Germany.” 12-2

Even in London one may get a glimpse of the Teutonic Christmas in the half-German streets round Fitzroy Square. They are bald and drab enough, but at Christmas here and there a window shines with a lighted tree, and the very prosaic Lutheran church in Cleveland Street has an unwonted sight to show—two great fir-trees decked with white candles, standing one on each side of the pulpit. The church of the German Catholics, too, St. Boniface's, Whitechapel, has in its sanctuary two Christmas-trees strangely gay with coloured glistening balls and long strands of gold and silver engelshaar. The candles are lit at Benediction during the festival, and between the shining trees the solemn ritual is performed by the priest and a crowd of serving boys in scarlet and white with tapers and incense.

There is a pretty story about the institution of the Weihnachtsbaum by Martin Luther: how, after wandering one Christmas Eve under the clear winter sky lit by a thousand stars, he set up for his children a tree with countless candles, an image of the starry heaven whence Christ came down. This, however, belongs to the region of legend; the first historical mention of the Christmas-tree is found in the notes of a certain Strasburg citizen of unknown name, written in the year 1605. “At Christmas,” he writes, “they set up fir-trees in the parlours at Strasburg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, &c.” 12-3

We next meet with the tree in a hostile allusion by a distinguished Strasburg theologian, Dr. Johann Konrad Dannhauer, Professor and Preacher at the Cathedral. In his book, “The Milk of the Catechism,” published about the middle of the seventeenth century, he speaks of “the Christmas- or fir-tree, which people set up in their houses, hang with dolls and sweets, and afterwards shake and deflower.” “Whence comes the custom,” he says, “I know not; it is child's play.... Far better were it to point the children to the spiritual cedar-tree, Jesus Christ.” 12-4

In neither of these references is there any mention of candles—the p. 266 most fascinating feature of the modern tree. These appear, however, in a Latin work on Christmas presents by Karl Gottfried Kissling of the University of Wittenberg, written in 1737. He tells how a certain country lady of his acquaintance set up a little tree for each of her sons and daughters, lit candles on or around the trees, laid out presents beneath them, and called her children one by one into the room to take the trees and gifts intended for them. 12-5

With the advance of the eighteenth-century notices of the Weihnachtsbaum become more frequent: Jung Stilling, Goethe, Schiller, and others mention it, and about the end of the century its use seems to have been fairly general in Germany. 12-6 In many places, however, it was not common till well on in the eighteen hundreds: it was a Protestant rather than a Catholic institution, and it made its way but slowly in regions where the older faith was held. 12-7 Well-to-do townspeople welcomed it first, and the peasantry were slow to adopt it. In Old Bavaria, for instance, in 1855 it was quite unknown in country places, and even to-day it is not very common there, except in the towns. 12-8 “It is more in vogue on the whole,” wrote Dr. Tille in 1893, “in the Protestant north than in the Catholic south,” 12-9 but its popularity was rapidly growing at that time.

A common substitute for the Christmas-tree in Saxony during the nineteenth century, and one still found in country places, was the so-called “pyramid,” a wooden erection adorned with many-coloured paper and with lights. These pyramids were very popular among the smaller bourgeoisie and artisans, and were kept from one Christmas to another. 12-10 In Berlin, too, the pyramid was once very common. It was there adorned with green twigs as well as with candles and coloured paper, and had more resemblance to the Christmas-tree. 12-11 Tieck refers to it in his story, “Weihnacht-Abend” (1805). 12-12

Pyramids, without lights apparently, were known in England before 1840. In Hertfordshire they were formed of gilt evergreens, apples, and nuts, and were carried about just before Christmas for presents. In Herefordshire they were known at the New Year. 12-13

p. 267 The Christmas-tree was introduced into France in 1840, when Princess Helene of Mecklenburg brought it to Paris. In 1890 between thirty and thirty-five thousand of the trees are said to have been sold in Paris. 12-14

In England it is alluded to in 1789, 12-15 but its use did not become at all general until about the eighteen-forties. In 1840 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a Christmas-tree, and the fashion spread until it became completely naturalized. 12-16 In Denmark and Norway it was known in 1830, and in Sweden in 1863 (among the Swedish population on the coast of Finland it seems to have been in use in 1800). 12-17 In Bohemia it is mentioned in 1862. 12-18 It is also found in Russia, the United States, Spain, Italy, and Holland, 12-19 and of course in Switzerland and Austria, so largely German in language and customs. In non-German countries it is rather a thing for the well-to-do classes than for the masses of the people.

The Christmas-tree is essentially a domestic institution. It has, however, found its way into Protestant churches in Germany and from them into Catholic churches. Even the Swiss Zwinglians, with all their Puritanism, do not exclude it from their bare, white-washed fanes. In the Münsterthal, for instance, a valley of Romonsch speech, off the Lower Engadine, a tree decked with candles, festoons, presents, and serpent-squibs, stands in church at Christmas, and it is difficult for the minister to conduct service, for all the time, except during the prayers, the people are letting off fireworks. On one day between Christmas Eve and New Year there is a great present-giving in church. 12-20

In Munich, and doubtless elsewhere, the tree appears not only in the church and in the home, but in the cemetery. The graves of the dead are decked on Christmas Eve with holly and mistletoe and a little Christmas-tree with gleaming lights, a touching token of remembrance, an attempt, perhaps, to give the departed a share in the brightness of the festival. 12-21

The question of the origin of Christmas-trees is of great interest. Though their affinity to other sacraments of the p. 268 vegetation-spirit is evident, it is difficult to be certain of their exact ancestry. Dr. Tille regards them as coming from a union of two elements: the old Roman custom of decking houses with laurels and green trees at the Kalends of January, and the popular belief that every Christmas Eve apple and other trees blossomed and bore fruit. 12-22

Before the advent of the Christmas-tree proper—a fir with lights and ornaments often imitating and always suggesting flowers and fruit—it was customary to put trees like cherry or hawthorn into water or into pots indoors, so that they might bud and blossom at New Year or Christmas. 12-23 Even to-day the practice of picking boughs in order that they may blossom at Christmas is to be found in some parts of Austria. In Carinthia girls on St. Lucia's Day (December 13) stick a cherry-branch into wet sand; if it blooms at Christmas their wishes will be fulfilled. In other parts the branches—pear as well as cherry—are picked on St. Barbara's Day (December 4), and in South Tyrol cherry-trees are manured with lime on the first Thursday in Advent so that they may blossom at Christmas. 12-24 The custom may have had to do with legendary lore about the marvellous transformation of Nature on the night of Christ's birth, when the rivers ran wine instead of water and trees stood in full blossom in spite of ice and snow. 12-25

In England there was an old belief in trees blossoming at Christmas, connected with the well-known legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea. When the saint settled at Glastonbury he planted his staff in the earth and it put forth leaves; moreover it blossomed every Christmas Eve. Not only the original thorn at Glastonbury but trees of the same species in other parts of England had this characteristic. When in 1752 the New Style was substituted for the Old, making Christmas fall twelve days earlier, folks were curious to see what the thorns would do. At Quainton in Buckinghamshire two thousand people, it is said, went out on the new Christmas Eve to view a blackthorn which had the Christmas blossoming habit. As no sign of buds was visible they agreed that the new Christmas could not be right, and refused to keep it. At Glastonbury itself nothing p. 269 happened on December 24, but on January 5, the right day according to the Old Style, the thorn blossomed as usual. 102 12-26

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.” 12-27

That these New Year practices of the Empire had to do with the Weihnachtsbaum 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. 12-28 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”; 12-29 while on Dutch ground in Gelderland and Limburg at the beginning of May trees were adorned with lights. 12-30

Nearer to Christmas is a New Year's custom found in some p. 270 Alsatian villages: the adorning of the fountain with a “May.” The girls who visit the fountain procure a small fir-tree or holly-bush, and deck it with ribbons, egg-shells, and little figures representing a shepherd or a man beating his wife. This is set up above the fountain on New Year's Eve. On the evening of the next day the snow is carefully cleared away and the girls dance and sing around the fountain. The lads may only take part in the dance by permission of the girls. The tree is kept all through the year as a protection to those who have set it up. 12-31

In Sweden, before the advent of the German type of tree, it was customary to place young pines, divested of bark and branches, outside the houses at Christmastide. 12-32 An English parallel which does not suggest any borrowing from Germany, was formerly to be found at Brough in Westmoreland on Twelfth Night. A holly-tree with torches attached to its branches was carried through the town in procession. It was finally thrown among the populace, who divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one inn, and the other, to a rival hostelry. 12-33 We have here pretty plainly a struggle of two factions—perhaps of two quarters of a town that were once separate villages—for the possession of a sacred object. 103

We may find parallels, lastly, in two remote corners of Europe. In the island of Chios—here we are on Greek ground—tenants are wont to offer to their landlords on Christmas morning a rhamna, a pole with wreaths of myrtle, olive, and orange leaves bound around it; “to these are fixed any flowers that may be found—geraniums, anemones, and the like, and, by way of further decoration, oranges, lemons, and strips of gold and coloured paper.” 104 12-34 Secondly, among the Circassians in the early half of the nineteenth century, a young pear-tree used to be carried into each house at an autumn festival, to the sound of music and joyous cries. It was covered with candles, and a cheese was fastened to its top. Round about it they ate, drank, and sang. Afterwards it was p. 271 removed to the courtyard, where it remained for the rest of the year. 12-36

Though there is no recorded instance of the use of a tree at Christmas in Germany before the seventeenth century, the Weihnachtsbaum may well be a descendant of some sacred tree carried about or set up at the beginning-of-winter festival. All things considered, it seems to belong to a class of primitive sacraments of which the example most familiar to English peoples is the May-pole. This is, of course, an early summer institution, but in France and Germany a Harvest May is also known—a large branch or a whole tree, which is decked with ears of corn, brought home on the last waggon from the harvest field, and fastened to the roof of farmhouse or barn, where it remains for a year. 12-37 Mannhardt has shown that such sacraments embody the tree-spirit conceived as the spirit of vegetation in general, and are believed to convey its life-giving, fructifying influences. Probably the idea of contact with the spirit of growth lay also beneath the Roman evergreen decorations, so that whether or not we connect the Christmas-tree with these, the principle at the bottom is the same.

Certain Christian ideas, finally, besides that of trees blossoming on the night of the Nativity, may have affected the fortunes of the Christmas-tree. December 24 was in old Church calendars the day of Adam and Eve, the idea being that Christ the second Adam had repaired by His Incarnation the loss caused by the sin of the first. A legend grew up that Adam when he left Paradise took with him an apple or sprout from the Tree of Knowledge, and that from this sprang the tree from which the Cross was made. Or it was said that on Adam's grave grew a sprig from the Tree of Life, and that from it Christ plucked the fruit of redemption. The Cross in early Christian poetry was conceived as the Tree of Life planted anew, bearing the glorious fruit of Christ's body, and repairing the mischief wrought by the misuse of the first tree. We may recall a verse from the “Pange, lingua” of Passiontide:—

“Faithful Cross! above all other,
One and only noble tree!p. 272 
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be:
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.”

In the religious Christmas plays the tree of Paradise was sometimes shown to the people. At Oberufer, for instance, it was a fine juniper-tree, adorned with apples and ribbons. Sometimes Christ Himself was regarded as the tree of Paradise. 12-38 The thought of Him as both the Light of the World and the Tree of Life may at least have given a Christian meaning to the light-bearing tree, and helped to establish its popularity among pious folk.

Christmas Decorations.

We have seen that the Christmas-tree may be a development, partly at least, from the custom of decorating buildings with evergreens at the New Year, and that such decorations were common throughout the Roman Empire. 105 Some further consideration may now be given to the subject of Christmas decorations in various lands. In winter, when all is brown and dead, the evergreens are manifestations of the abiding life within the plant-world, and they may well have been used as sacramental means of contact with the spirit of growth and fertility, threatened by the powers of blight. Particularly precious would be plants like the holly, the ivy, and the mistletoe, which actually bore fruit in the winter-time. 12-39

In spite of ecclesiastical condemnations of Kalends decorations—as late as the sixth century the capitula of Bishop Martin of Braga forbid the adorning of houses with laurels and green trees 12-40 —the custom has found its way even into churches, and nowhere more than in England. At least as far back as the fifteenth century, according to Stow's “Survay of London,” it was the custom at Christmas for “every man's house, as also the parish churches,” to be “decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green. The conduits and p. 273 standards in the streets were likewise garnished.” 12-41 Many people of the last generation will remember the old English mode of decoration—how sprigs of holly and yew, stuck into holes in the high pews, used to make the churches into miniature forests. Only upon the mistletoe does a trace of the ecclesiastical taboo remain, and even that is not universal, for at York Minster, for instance, some was laid upon the altar. 12-42

English popular custom has connected particular plants with the winter festival in a peculiarly delightful way; at the mere mention of holly or mistletoe the picture of Christmas with its country charm rises to the mind—we think of snowy fields and distant bells, of warm hearths and kindly merrymaking.

It is no wonder that the mistletoe has a special place in Christmas decorations, for it is associated with both Teutonic myth and Celtic ritual. It was with mistletoe that the beloved Balder was shot, and the plant played an important part in a Druidic ceremony described by Pliny. A white-robed Druid climbed a sacred oak and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. As it fell it was caught in a white cloth, and two white bulls were then sacrificed, with prayer. The mistletoe was called “all-healer” and was believed to be a remedy against poison and to make barren animals fruitful. 12-43 The significance of the ritual is not easy to find. Pliny's account, Dr. MacCulloch has suggested, may be incomplete, and the cutting of the mistletoe may have been a preliminary to some other ceremony—perhaps the felling of the tree on which it grew, whose soul was supposed to be in it, or perhaps the slaying of a representative of the tree-spirit; while the white oxen of Pliny's time may have replaced a human victim. 12-44

It is interesting to find that the name “all-healer” is still given to the mistletoe in Celtic speech, 106 12-45 and that in various European countries it is believed to possess marvellous powers of healing sickness or averting misfortune. 12-46

p. 274 It is hard to say exactly what is the origin of the English “kissing under the mistletoe,” but the practice would appear to be due to an imagined relation between the love of the sexes and the spirit of fertility embodied in the sacred bough, and it may be a vestige of the licence often permitted at folk-festivals. According to one form of the English custom the young men plucked, each time they kissed a girl, a berry from the bough. When the berries were all picked, the privilege ceased. 12-48

Sometimes a curious form, reminding one both of the German Christmas-tree and of the Krippe, is taken by the “kissing bunch.” Here is an account from Derbyshire:—

“The ‘kissing bunch’ is always an elaborate affair. The size depends upon the couple of hoops—one thrust through the other—which form its skeleton. Each of the ribs is garlanded with holly, ivy, and sprigs of other greens, with bits of coloured ribbons and paper roses, rosy-cheeked apples, specially reserved for this occasion, and oranges. Three small dolls are also prepared, often with much taste, and these represent our Saviour, the mother of Jesus, and Joseph. These dolls generally hang within the kissing bunch by strings from the top, and are surrounded by apples, oranges tied to strings, and various brightly coloured ornaments. Occasionally, however, the dolls are arranged in the kissing bunch to represent a manger-scene.... Mistletoe is not very plentiful in Derbyshire; but, generally, a bit is obtainable, and this is carefully tied to the bottom of the kissing bunch, which is then hung in the middle of the house-place, the centre of attention during Christmastide.” 12-49

Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be distinctively English. There is, however, a New Year's Eve custom in Lower Austria and the Rhaetian Alps that somewhat resembles our mistletoe bough practices. People linger late in the inns, the walls and windows of which are decorated with green pine-twigs. In the centre of the inn-parlour hangs from a roof-beam a wreath of the same greenery, and in a dark corner hides a masked figure known as “Sylvester,” old and ugly, with a flaxen beard and a wreath of mistletoe. If a youth or maiden happens to pass under the pine wreath Sylvester springs out and imprints a rough kiss. When midnight comes he is driven out as the representative of the old year. 12-50

p. 275 There are traces in Britain of the sacredness of holly as well as mistletoe. In Northumberland it is used for divination: nine leaves are taken and tied with nine knots into a handkerchief, and put under the pillow by a person who desires prophetic dreams. 12-51 For this purpose smooth leaves (without prickles) must be employed, and it is to be noted that at Burford in Shropshire smooth holly only was used for the Christmas decorations. 12-52 Holly is hated by witches, 12-53 but perhaps this may be due not to any pre-Christian sanctity attached to it but to the association of its thorns and blood-red berries with the Passion—an association to which it owes its Danish name, Kristdorn.

In some old English Christmas carols holly and ivy are put into a curious antagonism, apparently connected with a contest of the sexes. Holly is the men's plant, ivy the women's, and the carols are debates as to the respective merits of each. Possibly some sort of rude drama may once have been performed. 12-54 Here is a fifteenth-century example of these carols:—

“Holly and Ivy made a great party,
Who should have the mastery,
In landës where they go.
Then spoke Holly, ‘I am free and jolly,
I will have the mastery,
In landës where we go.’
Then spake Ivy, ‘I am lov'd and prov'd,
And I will have the mastery,
In landës where we go.’
Then spake Holly, and set him down on his knee,
‘I pray thee, gentle Ivy,
Say me no villainy,
In landës where we go.’” 12-55

The sanctity of Christmas house-decorations in England is shown by the care taken in disposing of them when removed from the walls. In Shropshire old-fashioned people never threw them away, for fear of misfortune, but either burnt them or gave them to the cows; it was very unlucky to let a piece p. 276 fall to the ground. The Shropshire custom was to leave the holly and ivy up until Candlemas, while the mistletoe-bough was carefully preserved until the time came for a new one next year. West Shropshire tradition, by the way, connects the mistletoe with the New Year rather than with Christmas; the bough ought not to be put up until New Year's Eve. 12-56

In Sweden green boughs, apparently, are not used for decoration, but the floor of the parlour is strewn with sprigs of fragrant juniper or spruce-pine, or with rye-straw. 12-57 The straw was probably intended originally to bring to the house, by means of sacramental contact, the wholesome influences of the corn-spirit, though the common people connect it with the stable at Bethlehem. The practice of laying straw and the same Christian explanation are found also in Poland 12-58 and in Crivoscia. 12-59 In Poland before the cloth is laid on Christmas Eve, the table is covered with a layer of hay or straw, and a sheaf stands in the corner. Years ago straw was also spread on the floor. Sometimes it is given to the cattle as a charm and sometimes it is used to tie up fruit-trees. 12-60

Dr. Frazer conjectures that the Swedish Yule straw comes in part at least from the last sheaf at harvest, to which, as embodying the corn-spirit, a peculiar significance is attached. The Swedish, like the Polish, Yule straw has sundry virtues; scattered on the ground it will make a barren field productive; and it is used to bind trees and make them fruitful. 12-61 Again the peasant at Christmas will sit on a log and throw up Yule straws one by one to the roof; as many as lodge in the rafters, so many will be the sheaves of rye at harvest. 12-62

Christmas and New Year Gifts.

We have come across presents of various kinds at the pre-Christmas festivals; now that we have reached Christmastide itself we may dwell a little upon the festival as the great present-giving season of the year, and try to get at the origins of the custom.

The Roman strenae offered to the Emperor or exchanged between private citizens at the January Kalends have already p. 277 been noted. According to tradition they were originally merely branches plucked from the grove of the goddess Strenia, and the purpose of these may well have been akin to that of the greenery used for decorations, viz., to secure contact with a vegetation-spirit. In the time of the Empire, however, the strenae were of a more attractive character, “men gave honeyed things, that the year of the recipient might be full of sweetness, lamps that it might be full of light, copper and silver and gold that wealth might flow in amain.” 12-63 Such presents were obviously a kind of charm for the New Year, based on the principle that as the beginning was, so would the rest of the year be.

With the adoption of the Roman New Year's Day its present-giving customs appear to have spread far and wide. In France, where the Latin spirit is still strong, January 1 is even now the great day for presents, and they are actually called étrennes, a name obviously derived from strenae. In Paris boxes of sweets are then given by bachelors to friends who have entertained them at their houses during the year—a survival perhaps of the “honeyed things” given in Roman times.

In many countries, however, present-giving is attached to the ecclesiastical festival of Christmas. This is doubtless largely due to attraction from the Roman New Year's Day to the feast hallowed by the Church, but readers of the foregoing pages will have seen that Christmas has also drawn to itself many practices of a November festival, and it is probable that German Christmas presents, at least, are connected as much with the apples and nuts of St. Martin and St. Nicholas 107 as with the Roman strenae. It has already been pointed out that the German St. Nicholas as present-giver appears to be a duplicate of St. Martin, and that St. Nicholas himself has often wandered from his own day to Christmas, or has been replaced by the Christ Child. We have also noted the rod associated with the two saints, and seen reason for thinking that its original purpose was not disciplinary but health-giving.

p. 278 It is interesting to find that while, if we may trust tradition, the Roman strenae were originally twigs, Christmas gifts in sixteenth-century Germany showed a connection with the twigs or rods of St. Martin and St. Nicholas. The presents were tied together in a bundle, and a twig was added to them. 12-65 This was regarded by the pedagogic mind of the period not as a lucky twig but as a rod in the sinister sense. In some Protestant sermons of the latter half of the century there are curious detailed references to Christmas presents. These are supposed to be brought to children by the Saviour Himself, strangely called the Haus-Christ. Among the gifts mentioned as contained in the “Christ-bundles” are pleasant things like money, sugar-plums, cakes, apples, nuts, dolls; useful things like clothes; and also things “that belong to teaching, obedience, chastisement, and discipline, as A.B.C. tablets, Bibles and handsome books, writing materials, paper, &c., and theChrist-rod.’” 12-66

A common gift to German children at Christmas or the New Year was an apple with a coin in it; the coin may conceivably be a Roman survival, 12-67 while the apple may be connected with those brought by St. Nicholas.

The Christ Child is still supposed to bring presents in Germany; in France, too, it is sometimes le petit Jésus who bears the welcome gifts. 12-68 In Italy we shall find that the great time for children's presents is Epiphany Eve, when the Befana comes, though in the northern provinces Santa Lucia is sometimes a gift-bringer. 12-69 In Sicily the days for gifts and the supposed bringers vary; sometimes, as we have already seen, it is the dead who bring them, on All Souls’ Eve; sometimes it is la Vecchia di Natali—the Christmas old woman—who comes with them on Christmas Eve; sometimes they are brought by the old woman Strina—note the derivation from strenae—at the New Year; sometimes by the Befana at the Epiphany. 12-70

A curious mode of giving presents on Christmas Eve belongs particularly to Sweden, though it is also found—perhaps borrowed—in Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and other parts of Germany. The so-called Julklapp is a gift wrapped up in innumerable coverings. The person who brings it raps noisily at p. 279 the door, and throws or pushes the Julklapp into the room. It is essential that he should arrive quite unexpectedly, and come and go like lightning without revealing his identity. Great efforts are made to conceal the gift so that the recipient after much trouble in undoing the covering may have to search and search again to find it. Sometimes in Sweden a thin gold ring is hidden away in a great heavy box, or a little gold heart is put in a Christmas cake. Occasionally a man contrives to hide in the Julklapp and thus offer himself as a Christmas present to the lady whom he loves. The gift is often accompanied by some satirical rhyme, or takes a form intended to tease the recipient. 12-71

Another custom, sometimes found in “better-class” Swedish households, is for the Christmas presents to be given by two masked figures, an old man and an old woman. The old man holds a bell in his hand and rings it, the old woman carries a basket full of sealed packets, which she delivers to the addressees. 12-72

There is nothing specially interesting in modern English modes of present-giving. We may, however, perhaps see in the custom of Christmas boxes, inexorably demanded and not always willingly bestowed, a degeneration of what was once friendly entertainment given in return for the good wishes and the luck brought by wassailers. Instances of gifts to calling neighbours have already come before our notice at several pre-Christmas festivals, notably All Souls’, St. Clement's, and St. Thomas's. As for the name “Christmas box,” it would seem to have come from the receptacles used for the gifts. According to one account apprentices, journeymen, and servants used to carry about earthen boxes with a slit in them, and when the time for collecting was over, broke them to obtain the contents. 12-73

The Christmas card, a sort of attenuated present, seems to be of quite modern origin. It is apparently a descendant of the “school pieces” or “Christmas pieces” popular in England in the first half of the nineteenth century—sheets of writing-paper with designs in pen and ink or copper-plate headings. The first Christmas card proper appears to have been issued in 1846, but it was not till about 1862 that the custom of card-sending obtained any foothold. 12-74

p. 280 

Click to enlarge


By Ferdinand Waldmûller (b. 1793).

p. 281 p. 282 p. 283 

Next: Chapter XII. Christmas Feasting and Sacrificial Survivals