Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas Traditions

By: Peggy L Henderson

This post isn’t about anything western related, but since it’s December and almost Christmas, and since I grew up in Germany, I thought I’d explore the history and traditions about a classic Christmas symbol – the Christmas Tree. Where did the idea of bringing an evergreen tree into the house and adorning it with colorful decorations come from?
Long before the advent of Christianity, plant and trees that remained green all year, especially during the cold winter months were considered special to many cultures. They were considered to be symbols of life during a time when many plants were dormant or could not survive the harsh conditions. Many ancient people hung evergreens from their doors and windows to keep evil spirits and illness out of the home.
Legend has it that St. Boniface, a 7th Century monk, used the triangular shape of the evergreen fir tree to teach about the holy trinity when he went to Germany to teach about Christianity.  In the early 16th century, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small tree with candles to show his children how the stars twinkled in the night.
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition we know today. As early as the 16th century, Germans brought trees into their homes and decorated them.  Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles. The early trees were biblically symbolic of the Paradise Tree in the Garden of Eden.
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children
Most 19th century Americans found Christmas trees to be strange and odd. The first record of a tree on display was in the 1830’s by the German settlers in Pennsylvania. Even as late as the 1840’s, Christmas trees were seen as a pagan symbol and not accepted by most Americans. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German Prince Albert, were shown in a sketch in a London paper as standing around a Christmas tree with their children.  Since Victoria was so popular among her subjects, it soon became fashionable to imitate her, not only in Britain, but also the fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas Tree quickly gained popularity, and by the 1890’s, acceptance was on the rise. While the trees in  European homes were usually no taller than 4 feet, Americans liked their trees to reach from floor to ceiling.
In the early 20th Century, Americans decorated their trees mostly with home made ornaments, while the German-Americans used apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn dyed a red color soon joined the decorations, interlaced with nuts and berries.
Christmas also wouldn’t be complete without baking up a batch of Lebkuchen. Formerly called Honigkucken (honeycake), the Lebkucken is the German variation of gingerbread.
Here is a recipe my mother used to make her Lebkuchen every Christmas:
(Bear with me, as I had to translate this from the German into English)

500g Flour
500g honey
3 tablespoons Cocoa powder
3 tablespoons Lebkuchen spice (a ready mix of spices including cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, ginger, mace, cloves, allspice, and maybe a few others, but you can cheat and use apple pie spices or pumpkin pie spice as well)
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons  milk
4 tablespoons vegetable oil

 Sift the flour into a large bowl, and add all dry ingredients. Mix well. Mix the wet ingredients and slowly incorporate into the dry until the dough is smooth.
Pour dough into shallow baking pan lined with wax paper. Bake at 350 degrees (do not preheat the oven) for 30-40 minutes. Allow to cool completely, and cut into squares or use cookie cutter cutouts.
What are some of your favorite holiday traditions?
In my Christmas Novella, A Yellowstone Christmas, Aimee Osborne holds firmly to the tradition of a Christmas Tree that she grew up with in the 21st Century, even though she now lives in the 19th Century with her mountain man husband, Daniel Osborne. Growing up among the Indians, he isn’t familiar with her traditions, but indulges her anyways. Here’s a short excerpt:

Daniel shook the snow from the young pine tree, holding it out to the side like a warrior holding a war lance. He planned to join the trunk of the tree to a base of two flat boards of wood and have the tree standing beside the window in the cabin before Aimee was awake. The warmth of the cabin would melt away any remaining frost on the needles.
He was sorry her plans had been interrupted the day before. His wife always looked forward to this time of year, and decorating her tree was one tradition she never wavered from. Daniel participated in the ritual because it brought such joy to Aimee, even if he didn’t fully understand it. As an added incentive for his cooperation with her traditions, Aimee always baked gingerbread on the day of her tree decorating. She’d been nearly beside herself with happiness when she’d seen the aromatic spice at the dry goods shop in St. Louis the first time he took her to the city four years ago. Along with nutmeg and cinnamon, ginger was one of her most guarded pantry items.


Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Peggy, I love this history of the Christmas tree and the excerpt and recipe tie so nicely together! Good job.

Unknown said...

What an interesting story of the Christmas Tree. The Lebkuchen recipe sounds yummy. I can see us sitting by the fire, eating our cookies reading the Christmas story of Aimee and Daniel. With a cup of hot choclate of course.

Peggy Henderson said...

thanks, Tanya! Glad you stopped by.

Peggy Henderson said...

you're making me hungry, Shirl. I think I might get that cup of hot chocolate right now. Aimee would have liked that, too, but Daniel couldn't get her any cocoa mix back then, so she had to settle for tea.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Those Christmas cookies sound delicious! As for Christmas trees, the Owyhee Avalanche reports that several families decorated sagebrush--this would be in the 1880s. What I find most interesting about your post is that what we call a tradition is actually pretty new here.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks for sharing, Peggy. I've always wanted to go to the Munich Christmas fair, but have only been to Germany in the summer and spring. Beautiful country, and I can see why you like Yellowstone so much in the USA.

Peggy Henderson said...

yes, it actually surprised me, too, that the Christmas tree hasn't been a "tradition" here in the US for very long.

Peggy Henderson said...

I've never been to the Munich Christmas fair, but I hear it's pretty awesome. My brother lives in Munich, and I'll have to ask him about it.
And Yellowstone is full of beautiful Christmas trees! :)

Ciara Gold said...

Very fun. My grandmother was German. My father had fond memories of a cookie she used to make that was flavored with Anise. It was a hard cookie that you dipped into your coffee. I'll have to try your recipe as I love baking at Christmas time.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Ha. It occurs to me that all the ignoramuses who want to ban Christmas trees from the public square because they're religious symbols ought to read up on their history. Tree = pagan. Of course if an ignoramus read history he might get smarter, and I think they all avoid that.

Lyn Horner said...

Fascinating history of Christmas trees, Peggy! The part about building pyrimids of wood and decorating them with greens caught my attention. I recently read that pioneers on the prairies where few trees grew sometimes did the same. Clever folk, our ancestors!