Christmas traditions – Apples to upside-down Christmas trees

Yule Traditions
Yule Traditions

EUROPEDecember 16, 2014 – No holiday season has more traditions than Christmas, but few of us have any idea about their origins. Did you know that Germany and France are responsible for many of our yuletide rituals?

According to legend, a monk traveled to Thuringia, Germany in the 7th century to teach the word of God. Located in the central part of the country, Thuringia was well known for its dense forests.

With the abundance of timber in the area, the monk began using fir trees as a means of explaining the concept of the Holy Trinity to local peasants. Over the centuries the fir become known as “God’s Tree.”

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Madonna under the Fir Tree

By the 12th century, firs were being brought indoors during Christmas and being hung upside-down as a symbol of Christianity. The triangular shape represented the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Hanging a tree from the ceiling was a means of letting people know that it had greater significance than mere decoration.

Over time, the original meaning of inverting a tree became lost and they were ultimately displayed in an upright position using candles as decoration.

Earliest accounts of trees being decorated date to 1521 in Germany, but there is more to the story than simple ornamentation.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”

During medieval times, December 24 was commemorated in cathedrals in many countries with mystery plays based upon Biblical texts. Beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, trees were placed indoors and decorated with apples as a reference to the forbidden fruit, and wafers, symbolizing the Eucharist and redemption.

When the apple harvest in Europe was especially poor one year, there was none of the red fruit to place upon the trees. As an alternative, a glassblower from Lauscha, Germany created red baubles as ornamental replacements. The Christmas ball was invented and the rest is history.

Though we generally don’t think of pretzels as a Christmas tradition, the popular doughy snack does have religious significance associated with both Christmas and, especially, Easter. Since the 12th century the pretzel has been used as an emblem for bakers in the Alsace region of Europe.

The religious aspects of the pretzel have to do with ingredients as well as shape. During Lent when Catholics were forbidden to eat eggs, lard or other dairy products, pretzels became popular because they only included flour and water.

The pretzel’s shape was established because the strips of dough were said to represent the folded arms of someone who was praying in the manner typical of the period. In addition, the three holes represented the Holy Trinity.

In the Middle Ages, pretzels were given to children as a reward for learning their prayers.

So popular were pretzels in Germany at Easter that they probably became the forerunner of modern day Easter egg hunts. Pretzels were hidden around the farms for children to find on Good Friday. When the search was over, two hard boiled eggs were placed in each of the large holes in the pretzel to represent rebirth and everlasting life.

Esther and Ahashuerus at a banquet. Thought to be the earliest depiction of a pretzel at a religious event (Wikipedia: 12th Century Herrad von Landsberg)

The continuous twisted shape of the pretzel was meant to show continuity due to its unbroken infinite shape.

Because of their “infinite” design, pretzels were later introduced at wedding ceremonies which resulted in the familiar phrase of “tying the knot.” The couple would make a wish, break the pretzel like a wishbone and then eat it to signify their union.

During Christmas, some cultures give each other slightly sweetened yeast pretzels on January 1 for good luck during the coming year.

Germany also claims the invention of the candy cane in 1670 when the choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral purchased “sweet sticks” from a local candy maker to quiet the children during the Christmas Eve service. Needing some justification for handing out candy during the service, the maestro asked that a “hook” be added to remind the children of the shepherds who tended baby Jesus.

Christmas has been celebrated during the time of the winter solstice since the 4th century when Pope Julius I chose to emphasize the light of the Savior during the darkest time of the year.

Candy Canes and Yule Logs have a long history of christian symbolism

In Scandinavia a huge log was brought into a home where it was burned on or about Christmas Eve until a couple of weeks after.

Mistakes and faults were forgiven and burned away in the fire so that everyone could begin a new year with a clean slate.

The Yule log was never allowed to extinguish entirely, as a portion of it was saved to start the fire the following year as a symbol of good luck.

Often it helps to know a little bit about the story behind a story to make it come alive and provide greater insights about why we do something each year. Who knows, maybe that’s why whenever we visit another country, the first thing we do is pass through “Customs.”

Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in Charlotte, NC. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club, which creates, and escorts customized tours to SwitzerlandFrance and Italy for groups of 12 or more.

Inquiries for groups can be made at [email protected] Taylored Media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others.

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