Later today at 4 pm, Santa will light the Copenhagen City Hall Square Christmas Tree with a welding machine – or something like that. There will be sparks, which is fitting as the story of the Danes and the Christmas tree has been one big love affair, and historically it goes back further than you might think.
Its modern incarnation dates back to 1811 – so 30 years ahead of the UK, and even more than the US. The curious citizens of Copenhagen gathered around the windows of the Lehman family’s home on Ny Kongensgade to marvel at what would go on to become a staple of Christmas celebrations all over the country.
A fixture since 1811
The young Doctor Lehmann, a priest’s son from Holstein in southern Jutland, had imported the custom from his rural region to Denmark’s capital. It was hardly surprising that the Holstein region was the very first area of the country to celebrate Yuletide with a tree in 1808, lying as close as it does to the German border.
His innovations came about some 30 years before the British monarch, Queen Victoria, made the tree fashionable on both sides of the Atlantic in 1841 by allowing her German husband Prince Albert to introduce one at Windsor Castle. However, it was only by the 1890s, that it was truly established as a tradition in the United States.
What was previously seen as a strange German custom spread rapidly in popularity across Denmark, with Hans Christian Andersen, the poet Adam Oehlenschläger, and popular writers Peter Faber and Johan Krohn all colluding to inscribe it into popular literature within a mere handful of decades.
Endorsed by HC
The nation’s greatest storyteller was a firm believer in the Christmas tree custom. Aside from his story of the little fir tree that doesn’t appreciate the magnitude of being a Christmas tree until it’s too late, HC Andersen also described the pleasures found in decorating them.
“The fir tree was put into a great tub filled with sand,” he wrote.
“The servants and the young ladies also decked it out. On one branch they hung little nets, cut out of coloured paper. Every net was filled with sweetmeats; golden apples and walnuts hung down as if they grew there, and more than a hundred little candles, red, white and blue, were fastened to the different boughs. High on the summit of the tree was fixed a tinsel star. It was splendid, particularly splendid. ‘This evening,’ said all. ‘This evening it will shine.’”
Another great writer from Denmark’s Golden Age (which ran fairly concurrently with Britain’s Victorian era), the poet Peter Faber, immortalised the tree in ‘High up from the tree’s green top’.
While Johan Krohn’s 1866 publication ‘Peter’s Yule’ – a poetic tale of a traditional family Christmas complete with trees, candles, presents and feasting – is brought to life in theatres nationwide even today. They speak to us in nostalgic overtones of a lost time of childhood and simple pleasures – of timeless traditions we can still enjoy.
Pining for the spruce?
Whether it’s the Norway spruce – introduced into Denmark in 1730 but present in the country’s colonies of Norway and southern Sweden much, much earlier – or the taller Scots pine, which has grown in the nation’s forests since the Middle Ages, the choice of Christmas tree is partly a question of taste and partly of regional variations.
Here in Copenhagen, it seems the spruce has the edge over its competition. Some have argued that the pine tree was vital to surviving a Medieval Danish winter, as its wood made the perfect winter fuel. That’s why its name means just that: ‘fyr’ in Danish is not only a pine tree, but also the word for lighting a fire.
A day of it
Although artificial trees have become popular in other countries, it has to be the genuine article here, and Danish Christmas trees are exported all over the world. Even today, many families use the purchase of the tree as the perfect opportunity for a rural daytrip, picking out the one they want from the forest, helping to cut it down and then leaving it outside the house until the time comes to decorate it.
It’s an activity the whole family involve themselves in. What is used simply to store presents underneath in some countries is so much more here, whether it’s being danced around on Christmas Eve or even planted outside again once the season has ended.
Incomplete without candles
Before the advent of electric lights, candles would have been hung on the Christmas tree, and the custom of lighting candles to celebrate Yuletide is much older than that of the tree. In fact, Christmas in Denmark has been known for a long time as ‘the feast of candles’, which were made from the fat of the animals the villagers would slaughter to survive the long winter.
By the time Christmas cards began to be introduced, trees went with Christmas like meat with two veg. The country’s oldest known Christmas card was posted from Randers Post Office in 1888. Its motif is a simple Christmas scene of plenty of snow and … two fir trees.