O Christmas Tree!

Richard Parry, Chief Exec of Penarth based Coleridge Cymru makes the case for a new look at Christmas trees and Welsh winter festivities…

An artificial tree doesn’t feel right to me. During the Christmas holidays I like a natural tree . Lots of people feel the same. According to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association somewhere between 6 and 8 million Christmas trees are sold in the UK each year.

And our discarded Christmas trees crowd the pavements through January in untidy throng, waiting to be collected by local councils. A dead forest of unwanted trees are laid out on streets across the whole country.

Do you ever wonder if this easy disposal of small trees is a good or proper thing for us to do as a society? An internet search for “sustainability” and “christmas trees” –  quickly delivers results clogged by intense debates about the relative merits of natural trees versus artificial Christmas trees.

I learn that if I keep an artificial tree for 11 years and walk to recycle this artificial tree at a proper facility my actions are more sustainable than any neighbours making an annual purchase of a natural Christmas tree. But, if I junk an artificial tree within ten years of buying it, then,  ecologically speaking, the environment would have been better off if I’d bought a fresh real tree each year.

So that seems the choice for all of us. A living, natural tree. Or an artificial one kept for 11 years.

But hang on…

Come on Wales! We can do better than that. There are living Welsh traditions that could change this argument and solve the British Christmas tree dilemma.

So, here’s a suggestion for a national Christmas decoration that could completely change our Welsh Christmas tree economy.

But before announcing this loudly trumpeted Welsh Christmas centrepiece for future generations, let’s just take a peek at the history of the modern British Christmas tree. And you don’t have to go very far back in time to discover the beginnings of our current fir Christmas trees…

The description of a fir Christmas tree in the English language first appears in  1799. The English poet Coleridge is travelling in Germany and from Ratzenburg he writes,

There is a Christmas custom here which pleased and interested me. The children make little presents to their parents, and to each other; and the parents to the children. For three or four months before Christmas the girls are all busy; and the boys save up their pocket money, to make or purchase these presents. What the present is to be is cautiously kept secret, and the girls have a world of contrivances to conceal it — such as working when they are out on visits, and the others are not with them; getting up in the morning before daylight; and the like.

Then, on the evening before Christmas day, one of the parlours is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go. A great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fastened in the bough, but so as not to catch it till they are nearly burnt out, and coloured paper hangs and flutters from the twigs.

Under this bough, the children lay out in great order the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift, and then bring out the rest one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces.

Where I witnessed this scene there were eight or nine children, and the eldest daughter and the mother wept aloud for joy and tenderness; and the tears ran down the face of the father, and he clasped all his children so tight to his breast, it seemed as if he did it to stifle the sob that was rising within him. I was very much affected.

The shadow of the bough and its appendages on the wall, and arching over on the ceiling, made a pretty picture, and then the raptures of the very little ones, when at last the twigs and their needles began to take fire and snap! — Oh, it was a delight for them!

On the next day, in the great parlour, the parents lay out on the table the presents for the children; a scene of more sober joy success, as on this day, after an old custom, the mother says privately to each of her daughters, and the father to his sons, that which he has observed most praiseworthy, and that which was most faulty in their conduct.

Formerly, and still in all the smaller towns and villages throughout North Germany, these presents were sent by all the parents to some one fellow, who in high buskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig, personate Knecht Rupert, the servant Rupert.

On Christmas night he goes round to every house, and says that Jesus Christ his master sent him thither, the parents and elder children receive him with great pomp of reverence, while the little ones are most terribly frightened. He then inquires for the children, and, according to the character which he hears from the parent, he gives them the intended presents, as if they came out of heaven from Jesus Christ. Or, if they should have been bad children, he gives the parents a rod, and in the name of his master recommends them to use it frequently.

About seven or eight years old the children are let into the secret, and it is curious to observe how faithfully they keep it.

In 1799 this tradition was unknown in Britain. Today we grow and buy millions of Christmas trees every year, and throw them away after the holidays.

My grandfather wouldn’t have a Christmas tree from the shops. Living in Hawarden in rural Flintshire, North Wales he had spent his life labouring on farms, working with horses, cattle, milk, chickens, eggs and later as a joiner in the local cement works. As a boy, when Christmas approached, I would go out with my Grandfather into the fields near their cottage. We’d take a ladder and a sharp saw. We went in search of holly.

In the the Autumn months he’d have spotted a holly bough, nicely shaped, on a nearby holly tree and said to himself, “That’ll do for Christmas”. A few days before the holiday we’d go out to collect it. He’d hold onto the base of the ladder and I was well wrapped up with thick coat, scarf, gloves and hat pulled tight over my head – holly trees are prickly. I’d climb up carefully into the holly tree searching for that bough he had mentally marked out for Christmas.

Once cut this holly bough stood as the house’s Christmas tree. We’d have our festive family dinner in the cottage’s back kitchen. Next door in the front room our decorated holly tree, presents collecting at its foot, would feature by the dresser.

These traditions of mid-winter Holly in Welsh and Celtic culture date back into pre-history. It is a very old way of celebrating the holiday. In Celtic festivities holly is spoken of as ‘The King of Winter’ and the love of having greenery indoors was taken in and adopted by the succeeding Christmas celebrations of old which continued the customs of gathering holly, ivy and mistletoe.

Today, I’ve still been finding a holly branch for Christmas. It is a delight. I’ll note a particular holly bough in the months before Christmas, and it’s always a happy morning when I go out to collect it, bring it home, and install it as the holiday’s Christmas tree. It’s hardly ever a branch with berries. The branch itself, without berries, is truly beautiful.

I’m uncertain what the economics or implications would be if we moved from fir, spruce and pine Christmas trees to a lovely bough of holly in most of our homes. Any such transition would be gradual. And a lot more holly trees might need planting! But remember, the boughs taken from a holly tree grow back. More branches appear. The tree isn’t killed. The holly tree gives again the following year.

If you are puzzled by our current throw away Christmas tree culture, then here’s a suggestion: over the next weeks, as the nights darken and winter deepens, keep an eye out for a holly branch that pleases you. It’s unlikely to belong to you, so you might have to knock on someone’s door to ask if you might have it at Christmas time. The search for your bough is part of the adventure and part of the joy of Christmas.

Make a commitment to have a Christmas holly tree for the next three years in place of your usual fir, pine or spruce tree.  This year see if collecting the holly, installing and decorating it and the presence of this beautiful bough in your home brightens your Christmas and connects you to the old, less anxious and less commercial life of Christmas traditions in Wales.

Nadolig Llawen!


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