St Jerome on “Christmas Trees” in Jeremiah 10

There is an interesting claim that circulates online – one of many – that Jeremiah 10:2-5 condemns the use of Christmas trees.  Helpfully this site, “Watch Jerusalem” [1] gives the claim plainly:

The Book of Jeremiah (written around 600 B.C.E.) states the following:

“Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen …. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree ….” (10:1-5, King James Version)

Here we see a tradition during the time of Jeremiah of cutting down a tree out of the forest, bringing it home, fastening it upright, and covering it with various decorations. The tradition is quite clearly identified as a pagan one that should not be followed.

This website is operated by the followers of Herbert W. Armstrong, who created “The Worldwide Church of God”, a heretical American group, in the middle of the last century.  The claim perhaps originates with the Armstrongites, although a search is inconclusive, and apparently is popular with the “Hebrew Roots” groups that appeared in the 1980s.

The claim is present in this article from a KJV-Only website, “Christmas Trees” by a certain John Hinton.

Jeremiah 10:2 KJV Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. 3* For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4* They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

… The Christmas tree is a blatant affront to God, but many, if not most, professed Christians put one up. Most that do not, do not because it is inconvenient, not because they are convicted by the Bible.

The modern perversions hide this warning by perverting this passage by disguising the adorned tree as an ordinary idol. I have seen many Christmas trees through the windows of churches all across America, even Baptist churches. This is as strong a statement that they could make about what kind of church they are, and should be a warning to all with any spiritual discernment at all.

Modern translations make it much clearer that what is in view here is an idol – possibly an Asherah pole – rather than a tree.  The cutting down of the tree is to obtain the wood in order to make it.  So it seems that this particular teaching is an instance where the old language of the KJV tends to mislead a modern reader.

I thought that it would be interesting to see what an older commentator on Jeremiah made of this passage.  Origen, in his Homilies on Jeremiah, does not discuss this section of Jeremiah 10.  But Jerome, writing in 414 AD, does!

Here is what he says.  We’re using the Michael Graves translation published by IVP, p.66:[2]

10: 1-3a: Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor he dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the people are false.”

Strictly speaking, he says this against those who worship celestial bodies and things that have been set as signs for years, times, calculations and days, and who suppose that the human race is governed by these celestial bodies and that earthly affairs are ordered according to celestial causes. And when he says “the customs (or statutes) of the people are false,” he shows all human wisdom to be futile and to have nothing useful within it.

10:3b-5: “A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not fall apart”—or “will not move.” “They have been fashioned in the likeness of a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”

This is a description of the idols that the nations worship. “A tree from the forest,” he says, “is cut down”—thus, the material out of which idols are made is cheap and perishable; “worked … by the hands of a craftsman”— since the craftsman is mortal, mortal also are the things that he fashions; “Men deck it with silver and gold,” so that by the glow of each of these materials the simple may be deceived. This same error has been passed down to us, in that we judge people’s religion by their wealth. “They fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not fall apart,” or “will not move.” How great can the power of idols be, if they are not capable of standing up unless they are fastened with hammer and nails? “They have been fashioned in the likeness of a palm tree*—they have the beauty of metalwork and have been decorated through the art of painting, but they do not possess usefulness, such as would provide some benefit to the craftsman. “And they cannot speak,” for there is nothing alive about them, as it is written: “They have mouths but do not speak . . . they have ears but do not hear.”232 “They have to be carried”—the one who does the carrying is stronger than the things that are carried; indeed, in the one there is the capacity to think, bur in the other there is a physical form without the capacity to think. “Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” For most of the nations regularly worship demons, in some cases to prevent them from doing harm and in other cases to entreat some favor. Whence also is the Virgilian phrase: “a black sheep to the storm god, a white to the favoring Zephyrs.”239

Whatever we have said about idols can also be applied to all teachings that are contrary to the truth. For false teachings promise great things and fabricate from within them an image for empty worship. They make grand claims, and they hamper the reasoning of the unskilled by their golden theories and their eloquence that glows with the splendor of silver. They are propped up by those who invent them, and they have no usefulness. The cultivation of such teachings belongs properly to the nations and to those who are ignorant of God.

The references are to Ps. 115:5-6 and Vergil, Aeneid 3.120 (in the Loeb text).

So we see that Jerome, like any sensible man, reads the text as referring to the process of manufacturing a wooden idol.

Christmas first appears in the historical record in 336 AD, in the Chronography of 354.  But there is no record, for more than a thousand years, that anybody ever celebrated Christmas with a tree, until 1521, when a register in the town hall in Séléstat in  German-speaking Alsace records the first appearance of the Christmas tree, decorated with communion wafers and red apples.  A few years later, a blight forced the use of artificial glass apples instead of real ones, and the Christmas tree “bauble” familiar to ourselves was born.

But in 414 AD, quite naturally, the Christmas tree is entirely unknown to St Jerome.

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  1. [1]Christopher Eames, “Christmas Trees – in the Hebrew Bible?”, December 24, 2020.
  2. [2]Jerome: Commentary on Jeremiah, tr. Michael Graves, IVP 2012.

Christmas trees in Livonia? Balthasar Russow (1579) in the Livonian Chronicle

It’s time for a Christmas post.  This may be out of period for us, but we can do a little digging into an obscure modern legend.

Europe became Christian around 400 AD, and Christmas itself originates in Rome in 336 AD.  But the first documented example of a Christmas tree at Christmas is in a register in the town hall of Séléstat in deeply Catholic Alsace, dated 1521.

However there is a low-visibility rumour going around that prior to this, in the 1400s, there was a Christmas tree used in Livonia, in the city of Reval.  Today, after the 1945 deportation of the Baltic Germans, Reval is called Talinn, and Livonia is called Estonia.

This claim may be found presently in the Wikipedia article:

Customs of erecting decorated trees in wintertime can be traced to Christmas celebrations in Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany and Livonia. The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guildhalls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia), in 1441, 1442, 1510, and 1514, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Reval (now Tallinn) and Riga. On the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square, where the members of the brotherhood danced around it.

This is backed by a “reference” which, as is too common, does not say all this: “Amelung, Friedrich (1885). Geschichte der Revaler Schwarzenhäupter: von ihrem Ursprung an bis auf die Gegenwart: nach den urkundenmäßigen Quellen des Revaler Schwarzenhäupter-Archivs 1, Die erste Blütezeit von 1399–1557. This may be found here, in a PDF with nice OCR.

It doesn’t take much searching to find an article at NPR where someone more informed than any of us are likely to be pours cold water on the claim.  But I thought it might be fun to look at the sources.

Amelung in fact directs the reader to something called the “Livonian Chronicle” by a certain Balthasar Rüssow, who published a Chronica der Provinz Lyfflandt in low German in1578.  A revised edition appeared in 1584, and may be found here.

Fortunately for the rest of us, it was translated into standard German and printed in 1845, and is available here and here, under the revised title of 
Livländische Chronik: Aus dem Plattdeutschen übertragen und mit kurzen Anmerkungen versehen durch Eduard Pabst
.

The work does seem to be  known most generally as Balthasar Rüssow’s “Livländlische chronik” or “Livonian Chronicle”.  No English translation exists.

P. 68 has two chapters of dated events, to 1547.  P. 69 has chapter 48 dated to 1549-51.  So there is some chronological order to this.  But we are interested in the next chapter.

Chapter 49 bears the heading, “Die alte gute Zeit in Livland”, “The good old days in Livonia”.  It is this that contains the words “Tannenbaum” and “Weihnachtsbaum”, in the following short section on p.82-3.  The context is a discussion of celebrations at various times of the year.

I will give the German, then a slightly revised version of Google Translate, as most of this doesn’t matter much.  I don’t guarantee the translation: I haven’t much time this evening, and German is not my language.  But we can get an idea.  The author was a Lutheran clergyman, as is perhaps clear from some of what he says.

… Und wenn sie den halben Lag über den Vogel geschossen und ihn herunter gebracht hatten, da wurde stracks dem neuen Könige mit großem Frohlocken von Jedermann Glück und Heil gewünscht. Da war dann keine geringe Freude bei des Königs Freunden und auch bei Denen, die auf ihn gewettet und gewonnen hatten. Nicht lange darnach wurde derselbige neue König mit Posaunen und mit der vorigen Procession aller Gildenbrüder zwischen den zweien Aeltesten der Gemeine durch die Stadt nach der Gildenstube begleitet. Da stund es vor allen Thüren voll Volks von Männern, Frauen, Jungfern, Kindern und allerlei Gesinde, welche den neuen König mit großer Verwunderung und Freude anschauten. Da mußte der König einen silbernen Vogel auf einer Stange in seiner Hand tragen, und sein stählerner Bogen samt dem Bolzen, da er den Vogel mit herunter geschossen hatte, wurde hoch vor ihm her getragen. Und wenn sie in die Gildenstube kamen, da Alles herrlich und wohl zugerichtet war, dann find da ihre Frauen und Töchter zu demselbigen Bankett auch vor-Handen gewesen. Da hat man dem Könige von den schmuckesten Jungfern eine Königinn erwählt, die bei ihm allein stets sitzen und tanzen mußte, unangesehen daß er eine Frau hatte. Und solch ein Fest der Vogelstange hat drei der nächsten Sonntage nach Ostern gewährt, weshalb die Prediger diese drei Sonntage Nachmittags gemeinlich gefeiert haben, dieweil sich Jedermann lieber bei der Vogelstange als in der Kirche finden ließ.

Auf Pfingsten sind die Bürger und Gesellen in den Mai geritten und haben dar einen Maigrasen, der am Beßten ein herrlich Bankett auszurichten 1) vermöchte, unter sich erwählt und mit großem Pompe eingeführt.2) Solche Maigrafschaften sind darnach von Jedermann und auch von dem gemeinen Pöbel den ganzen Sommer durch alle Sonntage gehalten worden, nicht ohne vielfältige Leichtfertigkeit. So waren auch noch sonderliche Vogelstangen etlicherwegen an lustigen Oertern aufgerichtet, dar die jungen Ordensherren, Bürger und Gesellen alle Sonntage den ganzen Sommer durch den Vogel um ein Kleinod geschossen haben, da denn viel Volks, jung und alt, bei Haufen sich hin verfügt, solche Kurzweil anzuschauen, und den Sonntag also zugebracht hat.

Dieweil solch Vogelschießen bei den jungen Ordensherren, Bürgern und Kaufgesellen in hohem Preise war, da begannen die vom Adel etlicherwegen solcher Kurzweil sich auch zu befleißigen und Vogelstangen bei ihren Pfarrkirchen kurz vor der Livländischen Veränderung aufzurichten, dahin denn Viele gegen das Pfingstsest über zehn Meilen Wegs um der Vogelstange willen gekommen sind, und sich mehr um das Vogelschießen als um Gottes Wort bekümmert haben. Mittlerweile, wenn sie über dem Vogel schössen, wurde ein herrlich Bankett in des Pastors Hause zugerichtet, wo sie sich über ihr Vogelschießen lustig und guter Dinge machten.

So haben auch die Bürger bei Wintertagen in Weihnachten und Fastnacht auf ihren Gildenstuben, und die Gesellen 3) in ihren Companieen eine nicht geringe Wollust 4) geübt. Und wenn der Kaufgesellen Trunk 5) ein Ende hatte, haben sie einen großen hohen Tannenbaum, mit vielen Rosen behängen, in den Fasten auf dem Markte aufgerichtet und sich gegen den Abend gar spät mit einem Haufen Frauen und Jungfrauen dahin verfügt, erstlich gesungen und geschlungen und darnach den Baum angezündet, welcher im Düstern gewaltig geflammt hat. Da haben die Gesellen sich unter einander bei der Hand gefaßt und bei Paaren um den Baum und um das Feuer her gehüpft und getanzt, dar auch die Feuerwerker Raketen zur Pralerei schießen mußten. Und wiewol Solches von den Predigern gestraft, ist doch solche Strafe gar nichts geachtet worden. Zudem ist dar auch mit dem Ringfahren 6) mit Frauen und Jungfern weder Maß noch Ende gewesen, beides Tag und Nacht und oftmals den Predigern, die Solches gestraft, zu Trotze und zu Leide.

Diese vorerwähnte große Wollust der Livländer ist dem Muskowiter sehr zuträglich gewesen; denn in solchem Wesen hat er auf seine rechte Zeit, Anschläge und Vortheil gedacht und sich auf Geschütz, Kraut und Loth 7) und auf allerlei Kriegsmunition gewaltig und überflüssig geschickt und den einen Büchsenmeister nach dem andern aus den Deutschen und Welschen Landen erlangt. Und wiewol die Livländer Solches alle- wol wußten, so waren sie doch in großer Wollust und Sicherheit so ganz ersoffen, daß sie es nicht achten konnten, sondern ihm noch Kupfer, Blei und allerlei Waare, so zu seinem Vornehmen wider Livland gedient, ganz überflüssig zugeführt, heimlich und öffentlich, wie Solches aller Welt bewußt ist.

Which comes out as:

And when they had shot half the lag at the bird and brought it down, everyone wished luck and salvation to the new king with great joy. There was then no small joy among the king’s friends and also among those who had bet and won on him. Not long afterwards the same new king was accompanied with trumpets and with the previous procession of all guild brothers between the two elders of the community through the city to the guild room. There was a crowd of men, women, maidens, children, and all kinds of servants at every door, who looked at the new king with great astonishment and joy. Then the king had to carry a silver bird on a pole in his hand, and his steel bow with the bolt, which he had shot down the bird with, was carried high in front of him. And when they came to the guild room, since everything was splendidly and well prepared, then their wives and daughters were also there for the same banquet. A queen was chosen for the king from the finest maidens, who always had to sit and dance with him alone, regardless of the fact that he had a wife. And such a feast of the birdpole happened for three of the next Sundays after Easter, which is why the preachers celebrated these three Sundays in the afternoons, as everyone preferred to be found at the birdpole than in church.

At Pentecost, the citizens and journeymen rode into May and chose a “May meadow”, where they could be able best to hold a glorious banquet among themselves and introduced it with great pomp. Such May festivities were kept by everyone, and also by the common people, all summer, every Sundays, not without a variety of levity. So there were also special bird poles set up at places of amusement, so that the young knights of the order, citizens and journeymen shot at the bird for a reward every Sunday throughout the summer, because a lot of people, young and old, wanted to have a go at this for a short time, and so they spent the Sunday.

Because such bird shooting was so prized among the young monks, burghers and merchants, the nobility began to work hard because of such entertainment and to set up bird poles in their parish churches shortly before the Livonian change, there because many at Pentecost over ten miles away came for the sake of the birdpole, caring more about bird-shooting than about God’s word. Meanwhile, when they shot at the bird, a wonderful banquet was set up in the pastor’s house, where they celebrated their bird shooting and in good spirits.

The citizens, too, have exercised considerable fun in their guild rooms on winter days in Christmas and Shrovetide, and the journeymen in their companies. And when the journeyman drinks had finished, they would set up a tall, tall Christmas tree, hung with many roses, in the market during the fasting and, late in the evening, arranged to go there with a bunch of wives and girls, first of all singing and dancing around it and afterwards set fire to the tree, which in the gloom flamed mightily. Then the journeymen took each other by the hand and jumped and danced around the tree and around the fire with couples, and let off firework rockets to celebrate. And however much the preachers preached against such things, such preaching was not at all respected. In addition, there was neither measure nor an end to the ring dancing with wives and girls, both day and night and often to defy and ignore the preachers who criticised such things.

This great celebration of the Livonians, mentioned above, was very beneficial to the Muscovite; for in such a manner he thought this was the right time, to plan attacks and advantages and he made great use of guns, kraut and loth, and all kinds of ammunition, and obtained one gunsmith after the other from the German and French lands. And although the Livonians knew this, they were so completely drowned in their great amusements and security that they could not pay attention to it; and he brought in the copper, lead and all sorts of materials, used in his campaign against Livonia, quite superfluously, secretly and publicly, as all the world knows.

Here’s the same material from the 1584 edition in low German:

So this “Christmas tree” (Tannenbaum – Dannenbaum in low German) as Russow calls it was set up in the winter days of Christmas and also at the start of Lent (Fastnacht), decorated with roses, and then burned as part of the festivities.   He is writing much later, at a time when Christmas trees are widespread.  It would be interesting to know what it was actually called at the time.

But burning Christmas trees and dancing around them isn’t really what we do, or not intentionally so.  So, on the face of it, this is a related idea, from the same period, and the same culture; a cousin of the Christmas tree, rather than its origin.

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A Portugese Christmas tree around 1400? – part two

A couple of days ago I started to track down a rather odd paragraph in the Wikipedia article on Christmas trees, and I wrote a blog post on it here.  The article reads:

At the end of the Middle Ages, an early predecessor [of the Christmas tree] appears referred in the Regiment of the Order of Cister around 1400, in Alcobaça, Portugal. The Regiment of the local high-Sacristans of the Cistercian Order refers to what may be considered the oldest references to the Christmas tree: “Note on how to put the Christmas branch, scilicet: On the Christmas eve, you will look for a large Branch of green laurel, and you shall reap many red oranges, and place them on the branches that come of the laurel, specifically as you have seen, and in every orange you shall put a candle, and hang the Branch by a rope in the pole, which shall be by the candle of the altar-mor.”[21]

21. Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal (National Library of Portugal)—Codices Alcobacenses ([1] Archived 21 February 2013 at the Wayback Machine ); [BN: cod. alc. CLI / 64, Page. 330] Translated (“Nota de como has de poer o ramo de natal, scilicet: Em vespera de natal, buscarás huu grande Ramo de loureiro verde, e colherás muitas laranjas vermelhas e poer lhas has metidas pelos ramos que dele procedem specificadamente segundo já viste. E em cada hua laranja, poeras hua candea. E pendurarás o dicto Ramo per hua corda na polee que ha de star acerca da lampada do altar moor“)

This in fact refers to a  now lost manuscript that once belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Alcobaca in Portugal.  Those manuscripts are now in the Portugese national library, the Biblioteca Nacional.  This particular one was 32 pages long, and was one of a number which contained sacristy regulations for the monastery.  Originally numbered cod. alc. 151, the manuscript was renumbered as cod. alc. 64 some time during the 20th century.  Many of the Codices Alcobacenses are online;  but not this one, which was stolen from the library in 1948.  A couple of articles contain transcriptions of portions, but I was unable to obtain these.

Since then, a kind correspondent has sent me a copy of Gabriel Pereira, “Trechos portugueses dos séculos XIV e XV”, Boletim da segunda classe da Academia das Ciências, 5 (1911) 319-328, which I have uploaded and link to here.  It is full of interest.

Firstly, the manuscript was not in Latin, but written in Portugese!  This immediately raises questions about just how old the manuscript was.  Pereira does not offer much of a date: he notes that one entry refers to Dom Estavo da Guair, and a regulation by him from 1435.  So the document cannot predate this, but must be later.  He says that it was written in a 15th century hand.  He also states that the document clearly remained in use, because of marginalia in the writing of the 16th and 17th century.

Secondly, the mysterious reference in Wikipedia to “p.330” is explained!  For p.330 of Pereira is as follows:

This, then, is the source for the Wikipedia text, although the latter has plainly been copied and “improved” many times since Pereira in 1911.

Do Ramo que se ponha vespera de natal con candeas e tochas e ciryos.

Nota de como has de poer o ramo de natal. s[cilicet]. Em vespera de natal, buscarás huu grande Ramo de loureiro verde, e colherás muitas laranjas vermelhas e poer lhas has metidas pelos ramos que dele procedem specificadamente segundo já viste. E em cada hua laranja, poeras hua candea. E pendurarás o dicto Ramo per hua corda na polee que ha de star acerca da lampada do altar moor.  E as lo de acender: quando compecarem a missa do galo, e mais. xx. tochas e iii. cirios, e candeas que abastem, e todalas riliquias e plata da sancristia.

Using Google translate I get this:

Concerning the branch which is put up on Christmas Eve with candles, torches and cirios (?)

Note how the Christmas branch must be. i.e. On Christmas Eve, you must look for a large green laurel  branch, and you will pick many red oranges and put them in the branches that come from it specifically as you have seen.  And into each orange you will insert a candle.   And you will hang the aforesaid branch by its rope  on the pole which stands over the lamp on the main altar.  And light the lights: when the mass of the galo starts, and also 20 torches and 40 cirios.  And the candles that you bring (?), and all the relics and plate of the sacristy.

I don’t know any Portugese or Spanish – contributions welcome! – but that gives us some idea of what the sense is.

I also discovered a modern catalogue entry for the manuscript at Berkeley, here.  This contained the interesting information that a partial copy of the manuscript Alc. 64 exists, made in the 19th century, and today filed with other items in a manuscript in the Portugese national library:

Lisboa: Biblioteca Nacional, MSS. 203, n. 18. 1876? – 1920?.

It’s manuscript 203, although I believe it is not online, and item 18 within it.

So there we have the backstory.  It’s not a tree, not from 1400, not a precursor of the German invention of the Christmas tree, early in the 16th century – maybe around the same time as cod. Alc. 64 was written – but it is certainly an interesting parallel.

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A Portugese Christmas tree around 1400?

There is a rather odd paragraph in the Wikipedia article on the Christmas Tree.  Today it reads as follows:

At the end of the Middle Ages, an early predecessor appears referred in the Regiment of the Order of Cister around 1400, in Alcobaça, Portugal. The Regiment of the local high-Sacristans of the Cistercian Order refers to what may be considered the oldest references to the Christmas tree: “Note on how to put the Christmas branch, scilicet: On the Christmas eve, you will look for a large Branch of green laurel, and you shall reap many red oranges, and place them on the branches that come of the laurel, specifically as you have seen, and in every orange you shall put a candle, and hang the Branch by a rope in the pole, which shall be by the candle of the altar-mor.”[21]

21. Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal (National Library of Portugal)—Codices Alcobacenses ([1] Archived 21 February 2013 at the Wayback Machine ); [BN: cod. alc. CLI / 64, Page. 330] Translated (“Nota de como has de poer o ramo de natal, scilicet: Em vespera de natal, buscarás huu grande Ramo de loureiro verde, e colherás muitas laranjas vermelhas e poer lhas has metidas pelos ramos que dele procedem specificadamente segundo já viste. E em cada hua laranja, poeras hua candea. E pendurarás o dicto Ramo per hua corda na polee que ha de star acerca da lampada do altar moor“)

The links are all fake or unhelpful.  I looked at the Portugese version of the page, but this material was not present at all.

I then found a Facebook page that is probably the source, here:

N: Diz-me Manuel Joaquim Gandra que no seu ‘Portugal Sobrenatural’ (2007) trouxe um dado muito importante para o tema da Árvore de Natal, que para os frades de Alcobaça, no século XV, já seria prática corrente ! Cito com vénia: «Seja como for, já no quatrocentista Regimento dos Sacristãos-Mores da Ordem de Cister de Alcobaça [BN: cod. alc. CLI / 64, fl. 330] se alude ao que poderá considerar-se a mais antiga referência à árvore de Natal em Portugal: “Nota de como has de poer o ramo de natal, scilicet: Em vespera de natal, buscarás huu grande Ramo de loureiro verde, e colherás muitas laranjas vermelhas e poer lhas has metidas pelos ramos que dele procedem specificadamente segundo já viste. E em cada hua laranja, poeras hua candea. E pendurarás o dicto Ramo per hua corda na polee que ha de star acerca da lampada do altar moor”. Em Vilarinho da Castanheira (Carrazeda de Ansiães, Bragança) havia o costume de enfeitar com frutos, peças de caça, fumeiro, etc., a árvore de Natal que era feita no interior da igreja e depois arrematada em leilão».

A source is given: Manuel Joaquim Gandra, Portugal Sobrenatural (2007).  The author appears to be respectable, and the work appears to be a useful dictionary in several volumes, each thankfully quite cheap (10 euros).  Better still a preprint of volume 1 is online at Academia here, and on p.400 one reads:

ÁRVORE DE NATAL

Jorge Dias sustenta que é originária da Alemanha, onde terá aparecido por volta de 1500. Leite de Vasconcelos di-la introduzida em Portugal no último quartel do séc. XIX (Etnografia Portuguesa, v. 8, p. 522). Gustavo Barroso prefere apresentá-la como sobrevivência pagã da árvore de Maio. Seja como for, já no quatrocentista Regimento dos Sacristãos-Mores da Ordem de Cister de Alcobaça [BN: cod. alc. CLI / 64, fl. 330] se alude ao que poderá considerarse a mais antiga referência à árvore de Natal em Portugal: «Nota de como has de poer o ramo de natal, scilicet: Em vespera de natal, buscarás huu grande Ramo de loureiro verde, e colherás muitas laranjas vermelhas e poer lhas has metidas pelos ramos que dele procedem especificadamente segundo já viste. E em cada hua laranja, poeras hua candea. E pendurarás o dicto Ramo per hua corda na polee que ha de star acerca da lampada do altar moor». Em Vilarinho da Castanheira (Carrazeda de Ansiães, Bragança) havia o costume de enfeitar com frutos, peças de caça, fumeiro, etc., a árvore de Natal que era feita no interior da igreja e depois arrematada em leilão.

BIBLIOGRAFIA BARROS, J. C. Freitas, A Árvore de Natal (suas origens históricas), in Mensário das Casas do Povo, v. 8 (1953), p. 7; DIAS, A. Jorge, A Árvore de Natal, in Dois Distritos da Beira Litoral, v. 1 n. 36 (1953)

This in turn is doubtless derived from the other sources transmitted in Portugese, and it would probably be beyond those of us without access to Portugese libraries to trace this back to its origin.

However there is a manuscript reference in there: to the national library of Portugal, collection “Codices Alcobacenses” – the mss from the monastery of Alcobaca – shelfmark “cod. alc. CLI / 64”, and a “page number”.

I had never heard of the Alcobaca manuscripts, but in fact a great number of them are online here, and downloadable in PDF.  They are medieval manuscripts, mostly of medieval writers, although there are bibles and some patristic texts in there.  Some are Latin, others are in old Portugese.

I was unable to locate “CLI”, but an enquiry to the library brought a swift and gracious response that “CLI” was an old catalogue number, and since 1920 that manuscript was cod. alc. 64.  Unhappily, the story continued, the manuscript was one of a number stolen from the BNP in 1948.  She wrote:

The present shelfmark corresponds now only to the Arabic numbering, the Latin numbering was part of a referencing system prior to the 20th century.

These are Portuguese Sacristry regulations, concerning mass and other liturgical ceremonies at Alcobaça, a 15th century parchment manuscript of 32 folio. Unfortunately, this manuscript has been missing since 1948, when a serious theft occurred at the National Library of Lisbon. I can provide you with a more complete description of this codex, as we have some information in the old catalogs.

This is bad news.  What we want, of course, is the original text and some context.  If the manuscript was only 32 folios, this also suggests that the “page 330” relates to something else.

Another article on Academia here informs us that a partial 19th century copy exists of the manuscript (p.436, n.27).  But the author does not identify where this “copy” might be found.

I was then lucky enough to locate some more information about the manuscript online, in an article: C. F. Barreira, “Do benzimento das monjas. A profissão monástica feminina nos códices de Alcobaça”, in Lusitania Sacra, 37 (2018) 189-213, discussing how the monks gave support to nuns:

De acordo com o Alc. 64, Regimento dos Sacristães-Mores, redigido no abaciado de D. Estevão de Aguiar (1431 – 1446), hoje desaparecido da Biblioteca Nacional, mas conhecido por transcrições de Gabriel Pereira90 e Saul A. Gomes91, as freiras…

According to Alc. 64, Sacristy Regulations, written in the abbacy of D. Estevão de Aguiar (1431-46), today no longer in the Biblioteca Nacional, but known through transcriptions by Gabriel Pereira [90] and Saul A. Gomes [91], the nuns….

90. Gabriel Pereira, “Trechos portugueses dos séculos XIV e XV”, Boletim da segunda classe da Academia das Ciências, 5 (1911) 319-328.
91. Saul A. Gomes, “A vida litúrgica entre os monges de Alcobaça”…, p. 423-448 and Idem, “Uma paisagem para a oração”…, p. 19-56.

The Pereira article is old, but does not seem to be online as far as I could tell, unless it is at HathiTrust here.  Dr Gomes has a very extensive Academia page here, thankfully, but neither article seems to be listed.  The first seems to be Gomes, Saul António,  “A vida litúrgica entre os monges de Alcobaca em meados de Quatrocentos: o Regimentó dos Sacristaes-Mores” in: A. Carreiras (ed), Mosteiros cistercienses. História, Arte, Espiritualidade e Património. Actas do Congresso realizado em Alcobaça, nos dias 14 a 17 de Junho de 2012 (Vol. 1-3), Pt. 2 (2013) p. 423-448; the other is Gomes, Saúl, “Uma paisagem para a orasáo: o Mosteiro de Alcobaca em Quatrocentos”, in Iria Goncalves (ed.), Paisagens rurais e urbanas: fontes, metodologías, problemáticas. Atas das Terceiras Jornadas. Lisboa: Centro de Estudos Históricos, (2007) 19-56.  Neither book seems to be accessible, and British libraries contain no copy of either, strangely.

That’s as far as we can go for now.

Clearly this obscure custom has nothing to do with, and did not lead to, the modern Christmas tree, which originates in Alsace, in Selestat, in 1521 and is about as German an artefact as one can imagine.  Decorating greenery is not of itself a mark of the Christmas tree, but a commonplace of humanity.

But it is most interesting all the same.

Update: More information has come to hand, and I have written another post here.

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