By Mary P. Pringle and Clara A. Urann.
It was away back in the time of Alexander the Great that Germany was made known to the civilized world by an adventurous sailor named Pytheas, a man of more than ordinary talent, who was sailing northward and discovered a land inhabited by a then unknown people. He reported his discovery to the Romans, but the difficulty was that Pytheas had seen so much more than any of the Greeks or Romans of those days that they utterly refused to believe his statements. Time has proved that the sailor was nearer right in many of his apparently visionary statements than his countrymen dreamed, although it has taken centuries to prove the fact in some cases.
The people whom Pytheas then introduced to the polite world were Teutons, a branch of the great Aryan race and closely related to the early English. The men were simple, truthful, and brave, but were sadly addicted to drink, it was said, and consequently were often quarrelsome. The women were much like those of to-day in their characteristics: virtuous, proud, and dignified; very beautiful, with golden-hued hair, blue eyes, and fresh, fair complexions. Like most of the early peoples, the Teutons worshiped gods and goddesses, and so have many customs and traditions in common with other branches of the Aryans.
If England has enjoyed the merriest Yule-tides of the past, certainly Germany enjoys the merriest of the present, for in no other country is the day so fully and heartily observed. It is the great occasion of the year and means much to the people.
For a week or more before the day, loads of evergreen trees of all sizes may be seen coming into the cities and towns to be piled up in squares and open places until the entire place looks like a forest of small firs. One wonders where they all come from and for how many years the supply will last, but it is not likely to fail at present.
The Lutherans gave Martin Luther the credit of introducing the Christmas tree into Germany. He may have helped to make it popular, but certainly there is abundant evidence to prove that it was known long before the Reformer's time. It is generally supposed to have its origin in mythological times and to be a vestige of the marvelous tree, Yggdrasil.
Possibly Martin Luther thought of the old story of the tree and imagined, as he traveled alone one cold night, how pretty the snow-laden fir-trees along his path would look could they be lighted by the twinkling stars overhead. But whether he had anything to do with it or not, the tree is now one of the most important features of Yule-tide among the Germans of all denominations.
Nearly ten million households require one or two trees each Christmas, varying in height from two to twenty feet. Societies provide them for people who are too poor to buy them, and very few are overlooked at this happy holiday season.
The grand Yule-tide festival is opened on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December sixth; in fact bazaars are held from the first of the month, which is really one prolonged season of merrymaking.
In Germany, St. Nicholas has a day set apart in his honor. He was born in. Palara, a city of Lycia, and but very little is known of his life except that he was made Bishop of Myra and died in the year 343. It was once the custom to send a man around to personate St. Nicholas on St. Nicholas Eve, and to inquire how the children had behaved through the year, who were deserving of gifts, and who needed a touch of the birch rods that he carried with him into every home. St. Nicholas still goes about in some parts of the country, and in the bazaars and shops are sold little bunches of rods, real or made of candy, such as St. Nicholas is supposed to deal in. In some places Knight Rupert takes the place of St. Nicholas in visiting the houses. But Kriss Kringle has nearly usurped the place St. Nicholas once held in awe and respect by German children.
Because St. Nicholas Day came so near to Christmas, in some countries the Saint became associated with that celebration, although in Germany the eve of his birthday continues to be observed. Germans purchase liberally of the toys and confectionery offered at the bazaars, and nowhere are prettier toys and confectionery found than in Germany—the country which furnishes the most beautiful toys in the world.
From the palace to the hut, Yule-tide is a season of peace, rest, joy, and devotion. For three days, that is the day before Christmas, Christmas, and the day after—known as Boxing-day—all business not absolutely necessary to the welfare of the community is suspended. Stores, markets, and bazaars present a festive appearance; the young girl attendants are smiling and happy, and every one seems in the best of humor.
Many of the poorer class, of Germans do not eat much meat, but at Christmas all indulge in that extravagance, so the markets are unusually crowded. They all like to purchase a plant or a flower for Christmas and the flower stores are marvels of beauty and sweetness.
Every one is busy preparing for the great occasion. Grown folks become children again in the simplicity of their enjoyment and enter into the excitement with as much enthusiasm as do the children.
Newspapers are not generally published during the three days of business suspension, for no one would have time or interest to read them at such a season.
In many places churches are open during the week before Christmas, for with all the bustle and excitement incident to the preparations, the people, young and old, are filled with a deep spirit of devotion, and never for an instant forget the significance of the occasion they commemorate.
Churches are not trimmed nor are they made attractive with flowers, songs, or in any special way, but the people go to listen with devotion to the telling of the old, old story of Christ's birthday and of the first Holy Night at Bethlehem.
The day before Christmas all are busy trimming up their homes and preparing for the great day. Usually the mother of the household trims the tree, not admitting any other member of the curious and expectant family into the room. Tables are provided for holding the gifts, as every one in the family is expected to make a gift to every other member, and it is surprising to note the interest taken in these simple gifts—often a soap-rose, an artificial flower, knitted lace, even sausages, cheese, or butter—and with each and all the ever-present Christmas cake. It is spiced and hard, cut into every manner of device—men, women, animals, stars, hearts, etc. The Pfeffer Kuchen (pepper cakes) or some similar cakes are to be seen everywhere at Christmas time.
The gifts are often accompanied with short verses, good, bad, or indifferent, according to the talent of the giver, but all serve to make the occasion merry. In some families these simple inexpensive gifts are so carefully kept that collections may be seen of gifts received by different members of the family since their infancy.
On Christmas Eve the guests assemble early, and by six o'clock a signal is given for the door of the mysterious room to be opened to admit the family to the tree:
"O Hemlock tree! O Hemlock-tree! how faithful are thy branches!
Green not alone in summer time,
But in the winter's frost and rime!
O Hemlock-tree! O Hemlock-tree! how faithful are thy branches!"
It is ablaze with tiny lighted tapers and radiant with shiny tinsel cut in pretty devices or in thread-like strips. Bright balls, gay toys, and paper flowers help to enhance its beauty, and sometimes scenes from sacred history are arranged with toys at the base of the tree.
With the distribution of the gifts the fun begins; each person is expected to kiss every other person present and help make the occasion a merry one.
Holy Night, or, as the Germans term it, Weihnacht—the Night of Dedication—is the time of family reunions, fun, and frolic. Not alone in homes, hospitals, prisons, barracks, and elsewhere is the pretty betinseled tree to be seen on Christmas, but in burying-grounds, on the resting-places of the dead, stand these fresh green trees in evidence of keeping the loved one's memory green.
While the custom of having a tree is universal throughout Germany, and from thence has been introduced into other countries, there are many customs peculiar to certain sections. In some of the little out-of-the-way places in the Tyrolese Alps the old-time Miracle Plays are enacted in a most primitive manner. As the peasants rarely, if ever, attend the theatre or have any opportunity to see a modern play, this occasion attracts them from far and near. Where is the theatre, who are the actors, do you ask? The theatre is the largest place available, sometimes a large room, sometimes a barn, anything that will accommodate the crowd that is sure to come. In one description of a play given on Christmas Day it is stated that the people assembled in a barn belonging to the vicarage to witness the Paradise Play. The top of a huge pottery stove at least five feet high served for the throne of God the Father, the stove being hidden by screens painted to represent clouds. The play "began at the beginning,"—at Chaos. A large paper screen bedecked with a profusion of suns, moons, stars, and comets formed a background, while in front sprawled a number of boys in tights with board wings fastened to their shoulders to represent angels. The language was as simple and primitive as the scenery, yet for the credulous, devout peasants "no distance is too great, no passes too steep or rough, no march on dusty highroads too fatiguing, if a Miracle or Passion Play is their goal."
Does it seem sacrilegious? Not to those who attend it in the spirit of humility and devotion, as do these Tyrolese peasants. In some places plays are given in churches on Christmas as they were formerly in England, but these are not common, and are only found in remote places. Throughout this country there is always a church service in the morning which is very generally attended, Protestants and Catholics alike making Christmas the day of all the year in which they attend church.
The name Christmas probably originated from the order that was given for saying mass (called Christ-mass) for the sins of the people on the day that commemorates the Saviour's Birth.
One beautiful feature of a German Christmas is the wide-spread thought for the poor and the interest taken in them. Many wealthy families have charge of a certain number of poor families, and on Christmas Day invite them to their own luxurious homes to receive gifts and enjoy the tree prepared for them. An address, prayer, and song as they stand around the tree precedes the distribution of gifts, usually of clothing and food, with which the guests fill the bags and baskets they bring with them. And for all there is an abundance of Pfeffer Kuchen, or some other Christmas cake.
In the midst of all the excitement of lighted tree and pretty gifts, German children seldom forget to return thanks for what they receive. They are taught that all these gifts come through the Christ-child, and that the occasion is not for selfish enjoyment but to give pleasure to others, and that no one is too poor to give kindly thought and pleasant words to those around them.
In some parts of Germany—Lorraine is one—the people burn the Yule-log; sometimes a huge log that will last through the three days' festivity, sometimes one so small that the family sit before it until it is all consumed. Sometimes a part of the log is suspended from the ceiling of the room and each person present blows at it hoping to make a spark fall on some watching face; then again some carry a piece of the log to bed with them to protect them from lightning. But the Yule-log is not very generally known in this land of great pottery stoves and closed fireplaces, and that may be one reason why post-wagons go rumbling about at Christmas time, carrying parcels from place to place and from door to door, blowing their post-horns continuously, instead of the parcels being dropped down chimneys by Santa Claus.
It is customary, also, in some parts of the country, for the people and their animals to fast the day before Christmas. At midnight the people attend church and it is said that the cattle kneel; then both man and beast partake of a hearty meal. There are places in the German Alps where it is believed that the cattle are blessed with the gift of language for a while on Christmas Eve, but as it is a very great sin to listen, no one has yet reported any conversation among them. In another part of the country it is thought that the Virgin Mary with a company of angels passes over the land on Holy Night, and so tables are spread with the best the larders afford and candles are lighted and left burning that the angelic visitors may find abundant food should they chance to stop on their way.
Boxing-day, when boxes prepared for the poor are distributed, follows the Holy Day and after that business is resumed, although festivities do not cease.
Sylvester, or New Year's Eve, is the next occasion to be observed during Yule-tide. The former name was given in honor of the first pope of that name, and still retained by many. After the usual church service in the early evening, the intervening hours before midnight are spent in the most boisterous merriment. Fun of all sorts within the limit of law and decency prevails. Any one venturing forth wearing a silk hat is in danger of having his hat, if not his head, smashed. "Hat off," cries the one who spies one of these head-coverings, and if the order is not instantly obeyed, woe betide the luckless wearer. At midnight all Germany, or at least all in the cities and the larger towns, may be seen out-of-doors or leaning from windows, waiting for the bells to ring out the Old Year and welcome in the New. At first stroke of the bells there arises one universal salute of Prosit Neujahr (Happy New Year). It is all good-natured fun, a wild, exuberant farewell to the Old Year—the closing scene of the joyous Yule-tide.
The oak is a strong and stalwart tree,
And it lifts its branches up,
And catches the dew right gallantly
In many a dainty cup:
And the world is brighter and better made
Because of the woodman's stroke,
Descending in sun, or falling in shade,
On the sturdy form of the oak.
But stronger, I ween, in apparel green,
And trappings so fair to see,
With its precious freight for small and great,
Is the beautiful Christmas tree.
The elm is a kind and goodly tree,
With its branches bending low:
The heart is glad when its form we see,
And we list to the river's flow.
Ay, the heart is glad and the pulses bound,
And joy illumes the face,
Whenever a goodly elm is found
Because of its beauty and grace.
But kinder, I ween, more goodly in mien,
With branches more drooping and free,
The tint of whose leaves fidelity weaves,
Is the beautiful Christmas tree.
—Hattie S. Russell
This is taken from Yuletide in Many Lands.
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