Salzburg Cathedral Museum Launches Exhibition On History Of Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree that graces the centre of the Bernini colonnade in St. Peter’s Square is a tradition John Paul II introduced back in 1982.

Every year since then, the competition has been on to see who can grow the tallest tree to adorn St. Peter’s Square.

This year’s tree was a gift from the German city of Waldmünchen.

The tree and the Nativity Scene which was also erected in the Square, recalls “the joy of the blazing light of God” and “the Christmas tree is a sign which recalls” this, Francis said.

Today it is quite common to find fir trees even inside churches and not just in Alpine countries but across Europe and North America. The years when the Christmas tree was yet another cause of discord among the churches seem long gone. To remember but also to herald the future of ecumenical dialogue, the Salzburg Cathedral Museum has put on an exhibition entitled “O Tannenbaum”. The title is not only a reference to the fir or Christmas tree but also to a much-loved Christmas carol, composed in 1824 by Ernst Anschütz, an organ teacher from Leipsig. The carol is based on a 16th century folk song (a love song in which referred to the fir as a symbol of faithfulness).

Decorating the Christmas tree is an old tradition and white and red were the colours most commonly seen in Central European forests. From as early as 1525 the prince and bishop Matthäus Lang von Wellenburg would issue a decree for trees to be cut in preparation for Christmas.

But the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with paper roses, glazed apples and biscuits started further North in Strasburg and Germany’s literary giant Goethe wrote that he saw his first Christmas tree in Leipsig in 1767. The Christmas tree received official approval at the Congress of Vienna in Austria, having previously been considered a symbol of Protestantism. The capital of uber-Catholic Austria hosted the first Christmas tree feast in 1914. Two years later it made its grand appearance in the Hofburg, the former imperial residence in the heart of Vienna, by expressed wish of Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg, spouse of the Archduke Charles. It crossed the Channel thanks to Prince Albert of Saxony, Queen Victoria’s spouse.

Despite attempts to introduce the tree as a symbol of Paradise and Life (and even as the tree of Jesse, a depiction of the ancestors of Christ), most of the Catholic hierarchy continued, at Rome’s request, to stigmatise the Christmas tree, labelling it a Protestant tradition or a sign of giving into “modernity”, for which forgiveness should be granted. All this was swept away in the early 1900’s, when the diocese of Salzburg started adding Christmas trees to the mangers that usually decorated its churches.

Since then, decorations have evolved to include all sorts of objects of different shake and forms: from the home-made sweets produced in the Biedermeier era (these were the sweets which Selma Lang, the wife of a Swedish pastor placed in the first ever Advent calendar), to the baubles and other decorations made of glass, silk, cotton, foil and all sorts of other materials. Lauscha glass decorations became very popular as of 1867, as did those made in Sebnitz, in Switzerland and Gablonz, in Bohemia. Electric decorations first appeared in the United States in 1870. This is when the production of artificial Christmas trees began. These would later be sent to soldiers fighting on the front in the First and Second World Wars.

The Christmas tree increasingly became a symbol of peace, despite adversity. Jewish children at a concentration camp in Theresienstadt, in Bohemia, even decorated a Christmas tree with some simple objects found. The exhibition at the Salzburg Cathedral Museum will be open until 6 January 2014 from 10-17. It is a collection of Christmas tree paintings and related objects, including old decorations and Felix Ignaz Pollinger’s “First Christmas tree in Ried” (1848) is among the works on show.

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