Folk-Lore/Volume 3/German Christmas and the Christmas-Tree
GERMAN CHRISTMAS AND THE CHRISTMAS- TREE.
ALL over the world wherever Germans dwell, whether in their own land or in foreign countries, the Christmas-tree is for them the chief ornament and symbol of Christmas-time. Wherever you trace the origin of the Christmas-tree outside Germany, you will find that it has been introduced from the Fatherland. Up to the year 1840 Great Britain did not know it. It was the Prince Consort Albert of Sachsen-Coburg who brought it to the Court of St. James. From there it slowly found its way through the aristocracy and the wealthier merchant classes to the whole of the city of London. Nowadays the custom of having a Christmas-tree is very common all over England. In Scotland and Ireland few are to be found in families. In Scotland the tree plays its part only at children's parties or charitable festivities. But while in Germany the Christmas-tree is used entirely as a bright ornament, presents, often wrapped in paper, are hung on it in England, which spoil its appearance. In some parts the tree is so small that it is handed round after dinner, before the ladies retire, with all the presents hanging on it, and everyone takes off the gift intended for him. In Germany all the presents lie on the table, bright with the light from the many candles and the reflection of all the gold and silver tinsel which decorates the large Christmas-tree.
In France, especially Paris, the Christmas-tree has only been known for the last sixty years. In 1830, the Duches Helena of Orleans imported it from Germany. From the Tuileries it has gradually spread over the whole French capital. The Empress Eugenie was very fond of it, and did a great deal to introduce the custom. Until now it has been always looked upon in France as entirely German and especially Alsatian—an opinion which is very nearly accurate.
When, in 1860, Christmas was celebrated for the first time in the German St. Joseph's School in the Vilette, the gentlemen who had arranged the fete went to every market to get a fir-tree. At last they succeeded in finding a very small one, about three feet high, which had been exposed for sale by some chance.
In 1869 fir-trees could be got at most of the markets in Paris. In 1870 the German armies celebrated their Christmas in German fashion in France, and many bright lights shone forth on that Christmas Eve. To-day, Paris requires every year 40,000 Christmas-trees, one-fourth of which are used by German, old Alsatian, Austrian, and Swiss families.
Contrary to the custom in Germany, where the tree is sawed off above the root, and fixed on a wooden cross painted green, or planted in a small garden, decorated with moss, the Frenchman takes the tree out with the roots, wraps straw around them, and thus puts it into the room, often planting it in the garden after it has done its duty as an ornament of Yuletide.
To the Netherlands, Russia, especially St. Petersburg and Moscow—where, however, it is only the custom among the better classes— and to Italy, the Christmas-tree has also come from Germany.
Milan, a semi-German town, cultivates the custom extensively; and in Rome and Naples the bright Christmastree can be seen illuminating the gloom of Christmas Eve in many other homes besides those of the German artists who have taken up their abode in the sunny south. In Hungary the custom first began in 1830, and it is still confined to the aristocracy and the Germans settled there In the beginning of this century Christmas-trees were unknown in Sweden, in the German sense at least. It was the custom there to place fir- or pine-trees in front of the houses. So, at any rate, Finn Magnusen reports, in his Lexicon Mythologicum; and he adds, that the Danes and Norwegians did the same, but inside the house. To the insular Swedes and the Russians around the Baltic coast, in Dago and Worms, the Christmas-tree had at that time already been introduced from Germany. The fir, decorated with nuts and apples, carried five candles on each branch. On the Swedish mainland it was the custom in some places for the peasants to go to a field where a solitary tree stood, to put fire to it, and then perform a dance around it amid shouts of joy.
Everywhere where the Christmas-tree custom has been adopted we find that German emigrants, German sailors from merchant vessels, or German men-of-war, have first introduced it.
It has taken the deepest root in the United States, where there is so much of the German element. There, nobody looks upon it any more as something especially German; families of all nationalities have adopted the fairy-tree. Even the spirit of invention of the 19th century has got hold of it. Trees are made of moulded iron. Through the hollow trunk and branches gas-pipes are conducted, and instead of the modest light of the little wax candle, the glaring gas jet bursts forth from this artificial production of the ironfounder.
The Christmas-tree and German Christmas are ideas closely connected in the mind of every non-German. Most Germans feel the same. A Christmas without a tree is no real Christmas. In the lonely garret of the old maid, to whom it brings back for a moment happy childhood and hopeful youth; in the squalid cellar of the poorest workman, with his too large family, everywhere we may find, be it ever so small, a specimen of this symbol of Christmas-time. At every Christmarkt (Christmas-fair) are to be found tiny trees, with two or three bits of taper stuck on, and a few ornaments of coloured paper and tinsel, which are eagerly bought by those who cannot afford anything better. The lights of the Christmas-tree shine as far as the German tongue is spoken, from the east of Prussia to Alsatia, from the Baltic and the German Ocean to the south of the Danube. The custom has even been introduced into the Protestant church-service. In the mountainous tracts of Saxony, and in other districts, a Christmas-tree ablaze with lights is placed on the altar during the Christmas-service, which is celebrated at six o'clock on Christmas-morning. Everyone attending service brings a candle or small lanthorn, until, when the church is full, the whole interior is one flood of light.
Wherever in modern German literature we find a description of Christmas, everything centres around the Christmas-tree.
In a small ballad Carl Bleibtreu has described the celebration of Christmas among the Germans of the Foreign Legion in the trenches before Sebastopol, during the Crimean war. The lights of the fir-tree blaze up, and their brightness becomes a target for the Russian artillery, so that in a few minutes all the merry warriors lie prostrated by the deadly shell. In Herrmann Bahr's Die neuen Menschen (The new Men), the Christmas-tree is used as a symbol of man's affection for the old customs of childhood. And in Gerhard Hauptmann's Friedensfest (The Festival of Peace) it is the token of peace, which two blessed women, mother and daughter, carry into a family which has been at war within itself and with the world.
How typical the Christmas-tree is for German Christmas is illustrated by Sidney Whitman, who uses it in that sense, in his article on the German and the British workman.
But, for all that, not every home, not every family in Germany knows it. In the German Empire we find large districts where it is not customary or even known. In some parts they celebrate St. Nicolas Eve, New Year's Eve, or the Three Kings, instead of the 24th of December, and have no tree on these days.
Generally speaking, the custom of having a Christmas-tree is more common in the north of Germany, the part best known to English people, than in the south. Especially in Catholic districts, it is supplanted by the garden, containing the groups of Jesus in the manger, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, with the ox and ass. We find this Christmas-garden, as it is called, both at home and in the churches. For all that, the Christmas-tree has long since broken through the barrier of different creeds, and many Jewish families have adopted it to celebrate Yuletide.
In many homes, father or grandfather tell the children while sitting in the gloaming in the Christmas-room, filled with the pregnant odour of the fir-wood and wax-candles—a fragrance dear to every German—how it used to be when they were children, and listened with a beating heart for the sound of the bell which would admit them to all the joys and splendour dreamt of for so long. And so people think that it has always been thus, and that there never was a time when no bright tree graced merry Christmas-tide.
The most popular idea nowadays is, that the custom is a remnant of the old tree-worship. Others believe it to be of Christian origin. The 24th of December is the day of Adam and Eve. From there to the tree bearing the fruit of knowledge it is not far. In the New Testament, Jesus is often called a branch of the root of David. These pictures were familiar to all classes in the Middle Ages. Some sought for the origin in the seven-branched candlestick of the Jewish temple, but not one of these assumptions is well founded. In legend we also find many tales relating to it.
One Christmas Eve, Luther, so the story goes, was wandering across country. Clear and pure the night sky arched overhead, bright with thousands of stars. The picture impressed itself strongly on his mind, and when he came home, he immediately went out and cut a fir-tree in a neighbouring wood, and covering it with small candles, placed it in, the room, in order to give his little ones an idea of the nocturnal heavens, with their countless lights, from whence Jesus descended to the earth. But this legend is not yet a century old. It probably took its source from a picture by Schwerdtgeburth—"Luther taking Leave of his Family." Here the artist shows Luther's family around the Christmas-tree, but he has as little historical foundation for this as Scheffel has when he introduces a Christmas-tree into his Ekkehard in the tenth century.
In Lindenau, a suburb of Leipsic, a legend is told that the Christmas-tree was introduced there during the Thirty Years' War from Sweden. In the autumn of 1632, the battle of Lützen had been fought, in which Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, had been killed. For many months, wounded soldiers of the victorious Swedish army were quartered in the neighbourhood. In Lindenau there was a Swedish officer who had been shot through the hand, and who was nursed with great kindness by the people in the Protestant village. His wound healed quickly, and at Christmas-time he was well enough to leave; but, before going back to his own country, he wanted to thank the people in some tangible way, and so he asked the clergyman to allow him to arrange a Christmas-festival as he used to know it in his own northern home. He got the permission, and there, for the first time, a fir-tree covered with lights was seen in the old church. This story, like many others, seems to have no historical foundation. It is simply a charming little legend.
The Christmas-tree is certainly not as old as one generally assumes. There are many descriptions of German Yuletide festivities during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, in none of which it is mentioned. Some of these are very minute, and we have a right to conclude from this that, at that time, and in those places of which the description speaks, the Christmas-tree was unknown. The oldest record we have of a Christmas-tree dates from 1604, in Strasburg, in Alsace. It is a description, by a citizen of that town, of all the peculiar customs prevalent there at that time, to which he gave the title of Memorabilia quaedam Argentorati observata. After describing how the church-service is conducted, he gives an account of a children's festival: "At Christmas-time each child is taught a hymn or a verse from the Bible, which the boys have to say on Christmas Day, and the girls on New Year's Day, after saying which each child receives one, two, three, or four farthings, and sometimes a small book. As a contrast to this, the writer later on describes the Christmas in the house of the citizen:
"At Christmas, a fir-tree is put into the room, on which are hung roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats, etc. Usually a square frame is made around it." It is impossible to decipher the writing after this, as the paper is quite torn.
So in 1604 the Christmas-tree (but without candles) was already quite common in Strasburg. The next mention we find of the subject comes from the same place. In the years 1642-1646, Professor Dannhauer, D.D., in Strasburg, wrote a very learned book, entitled Catechismusmilch (The Milk of the Catechism). The professor was an orthodox Protestant; the Church was to him everything, secular life nothing. He was indignant that the people of Strasburg celebrated Christmas in their home, instead of devoting all their time to religious rites, and so he says: "Among other trifles with which they commemorate Christmas-time often more than with the word of God, is the Christmas, or fir-tree, which is erected at home. It is hung with dolls and sweetmeats, and afterwards shaken and plundered. Whence this custom came I do not know; it is child's-play. It would be much better to direct the children towards the spiritual tree of Jesus Christ."
To all appearances the Christmas-tree was still a local custom in the extreme west of Germany in Alsace, perhaps only in Strasburg. The rest of the country did not know it at that time, just as little as other lands. And it seems to have taken a long time to spread. More than two hundred years elapsed before it had penetrated to all parts of the Fatherland. For nearly a century we find no record of the Yule-tree. In the year 1737 it reappears, strange to say, on the eastern frontier of Germany, near where the Slavonic element begins. In 1737, a young doctor of law, Gottfried Kissling, from Zittau, became Lecturer in Wittenberg, the famous university where Luther and Melancthon had taught. As "primitiæ academicæ", he wrote a very learned Latin dissertation, entitled About Christmas Presents. He is very wroth about all the malpractices of his native town at Christmas-time, and goes on to say: "If it is necessary that the giving of presents should be accompanied by certain ceremonies, I like the way best in which a lady who lived in the country used to arrange the matter, . . . On the evening preceding the birthday of our Lord, she placed as many small trees in her rooms as there were persons to whom she wanted to make presents. By the height, ornament, and arrangement everyone could see which tree was intended for him. As soon as the presents had been divided and arranged, and the candles lighted on the trees, all the people entered in succession, looked at the things, and took possession each of the tree and presents intended for him."
Here we find the first mention of candles on the Christmas-tree. It is strange that each person got a separate tree; nowadays there is only one tree for all.
So far these are the only records which have come to light, but after the first half of the eighteenth century the reports multiply. The Christmas-tree penetrates into literature proper. A mention of it by the author Jung Stilling, seems to show that it was familiar to him in the days of his childhood. He was born in 1740, in Grund, in Nassau, and probably it must have been the custom there at that time already. In his Heimweh (Home Sickness), which was pubHshed for the first time in 1793, he says: "At the sound of these words I felt like the child listening to the apocryphal words of his mother on the day before Christmas; it has a presentiment of something glorious, but does not understand anything until it awakens in the morning, and is conducted to the illuminated tree of life, with the gilded nuts and the little lambs, the figure of the child Jesus, dolls, and plates with apples and sweetmeats." That sounds like a recollection of childhood.
Apart from this passage, it is Goethe who has first immortalised the Christmas-tree in German literature. In Goethe's birthplace, Frankfurt am Main, the Christmastree was unknown, and so young Goethe presumably passed his childhood without ever seeing one. For all that, the great poet got acquainted with the custom early in life, at the time when he was studying in Leipsic. According to Kunst und Leben (Art and Life), by Friedrich Förster, young Goethe saw the tree for the first time in 1765, in the house of Theodor Körner's grandmother, the wife of the engraver Stock, in Leipsic. The tree was there decorated with bonbons, and underneath were placed the manger with the child Jesus, made of sugar, and the Virgin Mary, also Joseph, and the ox and the ass. In front of it there stood a little table with brown gingerbread for the children.
In another book we find even more particulars. In Goethes Gespröche (Goethe's Conversations), edited by Biedermann, the daughter of the house, who afterwards married the lawyer Körner, who became Schiller's most intimate friend, gives a description of her acquaintance with young Goethe in the year 1767: "Goethe and my father (the engraver Stock) got into such high spirits, that they arranged a Christmas-tree covered with sweetmeats, on Christmas Eve for Jolly." So it appears that at that time the Christmas-tree was looked upon as something suitable for a joke, a proof that it was not yet an established custom. Athough Goethe's letters of that period to his sister, which generally mention all the news, do not contain an allusion to this matter, we may look upon it as authentic, as it is vouched for by two witnesses.
A few years later, 1770-71, Goethe stayed in Strasburg. If he had not yet known the Christmas-tree at that period, he would have been sure to have got acquainted with it here, in its old home.
From the year 1785 we have written testimony that the custom was at that time still in use in Strasburg.
In her Mémoires the Baroness Oberkirch relates as follows: "Nous passâmes l'hiver à Strasbourg, et à l'époque de Noël nous allâmes, comme de coutume, au Christkindelsmarkt. Cette foire, qui est destinée aux enfants, se tient pendant la semaine qui précède Noël et dure jusqu'à minuit. .... Le grand jour arrive, on prépare dans chaque maison le Tannenbaum, le sapin couvert de bougies et de bonbons, avec une grande illumination, on attend la visite du Christkindel (le petit Jésus) qui doit récompenser les bons petits enfants, mais on craint aussi le Hanstrapp, qui doit chercher et punir les enfants désobéissants et méchants." After staying in Strasburg Goethe went to Wetzlar, where it seems the Christmastree was as yet unknown. This is evident from Goethe's letters to Kestner, 1772-73.
In the year 1772 Goethe sent a parcel accompanied by a letter to his friend Kestner, the husband of Goethe's old love, Charlotte Buff, shortly before Christmas. In his writing he says, that if he were with them he would like to light many wax-tapers for the little boys (Lotte's brothers), so that it would be like a reflection of heaven in their little minds. But he mentions nothing of the Christmas-tree. So it appears that Goethe never saw Lotte under it, and it is purely a picture drawn from imagination which associated it with her in his work, Leiden des jungen Werther, and by that introduced it for the first time into German Literature. Already Werther loves Lotte passionately, his nerves arc unstrung and his suicide is imminent. It is the evening of the 20th of December, the Sunday before Christmas, when Werther visits Lotte. "She was busy making some toys which she wished to give to her little brothers and sisters at Christmas. She talked of the delight the children would feel, and of the days when the unexpected opening of the door, and the sight of the tree ornamented with candles, sweets, and apples, made one feel all the joys of paradise. 'You are,' said Lotte, trying to hide her confusion under a sweet smile, 'you are to get something too, if you are very good, a wax-taper and something else.'" During the first years of Goethe's stay in Weimar the custom does not seem to have been known there. There is no mention of it made anywhere, although we have many reminiscences of that time.
Frau Rat, the poet's mother, used always to send him Frankfort marzipan cake, and he invariably gave some of it to his friend Frau von Stein. On the 30th December 1781 he writes to her: "I must send you a piece of holiday cake, in order to satisfy my longing to see you in some degree."
It was very rare for him to spend Christmas in Weimar itself; as soon as the snow was lying on the ground he wandered away to the hills. He has never again treated Christmas poetically after that first sketch, although he might have found a subject worthy of his muse in many Christmas rejoicings, which must have impressed themselves on his mind, especially one in 1796 at Frau von Stein's, with all the attributes of Christmas-tree, candles, and presents.
Schiller has never described any Christmas scenes in his works, although he loved the festival with its bright tree. At Christmas time in 1789, a hundred years ago, when he was already secretly betrothed to Lotte v. Lengefeld, who was at that time staying with her sister Caroline in Weimar, while her mother was in Rudolphstadt, he was invited to spend Christmas with a family of the name of Griesbach. He was at that time professor of history in Jena. He had already accepted the invitation, but he wrote again to say that he could not come, his beloved called him to Weimar. He sent a note to her, saying: "On Thursday I'll come to Weimar; do not accept any engagements for Christmas Eve. I hope you will decorate a pretty tree for me, as you are the cause of my missing the one at Griesbach." He had just asked Frau von Lengefeld for the hand of her daughter. In Weimar he received the answer: "Yes, I will give you the best and dearest I still possess, my good Lottchen." A year later, the Christmas-tree shed its lustre in his own home, and he stood beneath it with his wife.
In 1799 no Christmas-trees were to be found at the Christmas-fair in Leipsic, although the custom is mentioned as far back as 1767.
In 1807 Christmas-trees were to be had in Dresden at the time of the winter solstice, ornamented with gold tinsel, coloured bits of paper, gilded nuts, and candles.
In Hamburg Christmas-trees were well known as early as 1796, and in 1805 Johann Peter Hebel dedicated a poem to the Yule-tree in his "Allemanic Poems". In Berlin it can be traced to 1780, but the pine or Scotch fir was used there, not the bright green fir common now.
It was only by degrees that the fir imported from the Hartz supplemented the pine, and now we only find that gloomy tree in use in the poor eastern districts of Berlin.
At the beginning of the present century, the élite of Berlin did not practise the custom, as it was not fashionable among the French emigrants, and was looked upon as vulgar. Instead of that, according to Schleiermacher's Weihnachtsfeier (Christmas Celebration), they used to decorate the table on which the presents were laid with myrtle, amarynth, and ivy. About the year 1816, however, we find that the Christmas-tree was adopted in all the homes by rich and poor in Berlin.
In the fairy-tale of the Nutcracker, by Fouqué and Hoffmann, we have the Christmas-tree with its golden apples as the principal feature of the festival. After the beginning of the century, Prussians brought it to all parts of Germany, where it was till then unknown. It was especially by the frequent changes which took place with the frontiers of the German states, through the Congress of Vienna, that the custom was spread. Prussian officers and officials brought it to the west to Westphalia, and to the east to Dantzic. In Munich it was only introduced in 1S30 by the Queen Caroline, the wife of Louis I of Bavaria. After that all the principal places in Germany accepted it.
It lies in the nature of the Yule festival that the tree which graces it must be of the cuniferous tribe, for, at that time, all other trees in the forest are bare. But, for all that, it seems that in many places people tried, and often succeeded, in having trees with foliage and blossoms at Christmas-time.
We still possess an etching by Joseph Keller, entitled "Christbescherens, oder der fröhliche Morgen" (Christmas Gifts, or the Happy Morning), which must have been executed about the year 1790 at Nuremberg. This drawing shows us, in the corner of a room, a tree in the full splendour of its foliage, hung with ornaments just like those used to-day, and decorated with candles, two of which are borne by an angel suspended from the centre of the tree. This shows that foliage-trees must have been used formerly.
There is a report from Nördlingen relating to about the same time and place. It is the autobiography of the painter, Albrecht Adam, who was born in Nordlingen in 1786. He says: "In Nördlingen we don't have the dark fir-tree for Christmas; instead of that a small cherry or apricot-tree is planted, months before, in a pot, and placed in the corner of the room. Generally these trees are covered with blossoms at Christmas-time, and fill up the whole corner of the room. This is looked upon as a great ornament, which certainly adds much to the beauty of the Christmas-festival. One family vies with the other, and the one who has the finest blossoms on their tree is very proud of it."
The custom of having these kinds of trees does not seem isolated. In Austrian Silesia, the peasant women to this day sally forth at twelve o'clock at night on St. Andrew's Day to pluck a branch of the apricot-tree, which is put in water so that it may flower at Christmas-time With this flowering branch they go to the Christmas Mass and it gives them the faculty of discerning all the witches whilst the clergyman is saying the blessing; each witch is seen carrying a wooden pail on her head. In some parts of Austria, every member of the family cuts a branch of cherry, apricot, or pear-tree on the day of St. Barbara. Poor people offer them for sale under the name of "Barbara branches". In order that each may recognise their own branch, they are all marked, and then put into a dish with water, and placed on the stove. The water is renewed every second day. About Christmas-time, white blossoms burst forth, and the one whose branch blooms first or best may expect some good luck in the following year. In the Tyrol they even try to force a cherry-tree into blossom in the open air. The first Thursday in Advent they put lime into the ground underneath a cherry-tree, and then it flowers at Yuletide. Near Meran it is customary to put dry branches into water, so that they may flower at Christmas-time.
All these usages, just as the Christmas-tree with its artificial flowers and fruits, its candles and paper blossoms, its golden apples and nuts, have their origin in an ancient legend about the winter solstice, which is found among the East Teutonic tribes of Iceland, and also among the West Teutonic peoples—the Germans and the English—so it must be assumed to be an old tradition of both.
There is no night in the year about which so much is told that is strange and wonderful as about the night from the 24th to the 25th of December. In this night, according to popular beHef, the New Year begins, by the sun turning on its course. At the moment when the sun stands still (as the stone when thrown rests for an instant in mid-air), at that moment there is rent a split in time, through which eternity is seen with all its wonders. Mountains open, treasures rise to the surface of the earth, all the water which runs over the stones in one minute turns to wine, the Wild Huntsman rushes through the air, the dead arise and hold a midnight service, the beasts of the forest kneel down and pray, the horses in the stable receive the faculty of human speech for an hour, and the plant-world is endowed with life and blossoming powers for the same period.
In Iceland there goes the tale that once upon a time at Mödhrufell, in the Eyjafiord, a mountain-ash stood, which had sprung from the blood of two innocent persons who had been executed there. Every Christmas-night this tree was found covered with lights, which even the strongest gale could not extinguish. These lights were its wonderful blossoms.
In German folk-lore we find the legend about the blossoming-trees of Christmas amongst the peasantry as far back as the fifteenth century up to the present day. The oldest mention of it dates back to the year 1426. It is a letter of the Bishop of Bamberg, which is at present in the Court Library of Vienna. About 1430, a chronicle-writer of Nuremberg tells us the story with all its particulars: "Not far from Nuremberg there stood a wonderful tree. Every year in the coldest season, in the night of Christ's birth, this tree put forth blossoms and apples, as thick as a man's thumb. At this time our native land is usually covered with deep snow for two months before and after, and cold winds sweep across it. Therefore it caused great wonderment that at this holy time the apples came forth; so that several reliable people come from Nuremberg and the neighbourhood, and watch throughout the night to see if it is true." A similar tree is found in a place near Bamberg. During the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries we have many similar records in Germany.
In England, too, the legend of the flowering tree of Yuletide is known. Until the year 1753 the old reckoning according to the Julian calendar had been used, by which the New Year commenced on the 25th of March. As all other civilised states had already adopted the Gregorian calendar, the alteration of the New Year, and the change from the old to the new calendar, was accomplished without opposition on the part of the people in England. It was only in Buckinghamshire that a rebel rising threatened, and the cause of this was an old belief which was threatened by the new calendar.
In the old English legend Joseph of Arimathæa plays a part. His figure is also connected with the story of the Holy Grail, which was widespread all through the Middle Ages. Of Joseph of Arimathaæ it is told, that he once planted a staff on Christmas Eve which he had cut years ago from a hawthorn. It immediately took root and put forth leaves, and the next day was covered with blossoms. For many years this bush used to be in full bloom on Christmas night, and any cutting taken from it had the same miraculous power. Many of the bushes had withered and died in the course of centuries. Only one had survived, which stood on a mound in the churchyard of the Abbey of Glastonbury. In the reign of Charles I, it was still the custom to have a stately procession on Christmas Day, and to bring a branch of Glastonbury thorn, plucked the preceding night and always in full bloom, to the King and Queen. At the time of the civil war between the King and Parliament this wonderful bush was burned during an attack on the abbey. But not even then was the miraculous plant quite exterminated: a cutting had been planted some time before in Quainton in Buckinghamshire, and it also blossomed every Christmas night, although it was covered with blossoms in early summer like every other hawthorn-bush. During the night of the 24th to 25th December, in the year 1753, New S., a large crowd had gathered with torches, candles, and lanthorns around the wonderful bush, anxious to behold the development of the white blossoms. Midnight struck, but the bush remained bleak and dead: no sign of life could be detected. After waiting in vain till dawn, the people dispersed, but the excitement still continued.
There was no doubting possible: the new Christmas Day was not the right one. The authorities had already decided to exterminate the bush, when lo and behold, on the 5th of January, the old Christmas Day, it stood in full bloom.
This of course heightened popular feeling, and the clergy, seeing that stricter measures would only make matters worse, effected a compromise, and so both the old and the new Christmas Day were celebrated alike.
At what date the hawthorn-bush at Quainton became aware of its chronological error, and changed its day of miraculous blossoming to suit the Gregorian calendar, is not known.