Almost five years ago I posted the German original of one of my most favourite Christmas stories. Since then I still have not been able to find a decent English version… so I think it’s high time I’ll write one myself.
Pardon me for any mistakes.
The very first Christmas tree, by Hermann Löns (1866-1914)
Santa Claus was walking through the forest. He was grumpy; his little white pomeranian who would usually frolic ahead and bark happily noticed it very well, and quietly followed behind with his tail between his legs.
Santa had lost the joy in Christmas: It just wasn’t the same any more. The same old, same old every year. Toys and food just didn’t cut it any more on the long run! The children liked that just fine, but they were supposed to sing and dance and laugh – and they hardly did that by now.
The whole month of December he had tried to come up with something new, to bring the proper Christmas joy back to the children, a Christmas joy that would work just as well for the grown-ups. Riches it couldn’t be, because he had only so much to spend on the whole thing, and not more.
So there he was, stumping through the snowy woods, until he came to the crossroads where he was going to meed with the Holy Child, with whom he discussed the distribution of the gifts every year. From far away he could already see the Holy Child had already arrived because a great light was upon the place.
The Child was wearing a long white fur cloak, and was laughing with pure joy. All around it were bundles and bundles of rushes and hay, and beanstalks and willow branches, and the deer and and roes and hares were feasting on them. Even for the wild boar there was something: acorns, chestnuts, and turnips.
Santa Claus took off his hat, and greeted the Child. “Hello, old man, how is it with you?”, said the Child. “You look like it rained on your parade.” With this the Child took Santa’s arm, and walked a bit with him. Behind them was Santa’s little pomeranian, but he was not sad at all any more, and held his tail high in the air again.
“Well,” said Santa Claus, “this whole thing isn’t fun any more. I don’t know if it’s my age or what else. The gingerbread and the nuts are just not cutting it any more. They eat them, and that’s that for another year. There should be something new, something that is neither food nor toys, but that makes everybody sing and dance with joy!”
The Child nodded, and said, with a thoughtful look on his face, “You know, I’ve been noticing that, too. I’ve been thinking about that, but it’s not easy to find something.”
“That’s exactly the problem, maybe I’m too old; I’m actually getting headaches from all the thinking, but I just can’t come up with anything decent. If this keeps going on like that the whole thing’s going to fall asleep, and it’ll just be yet another normal holiday, with nothing special except for overeating and sleeping.”
And so they both walked through the wintry forest, deep in thought, Santa Claus with a frown on his face, the Child with a thoughtful expression.
The forest was very quiet, not a single branch moved, only an owl moved around and now and then made some snow fall off a branch with a quiet plop. So they came to an old clear cutting, that had larger and smaller pines standing all over it, that looked really wonderful: the moon and the stars were shining brightly, the snow looked just like beaten silver, and the pine trees stood there, black and white, a true splendour to behold.
A five foot tree was standing a bit apart from the others, and that one was the most beautiful of the lot. It had grown perfectly straight, and stood there with a small stripe of snow along every branch, and icicles on the ends of the branches, and glittered and sparkled in the moonlight.
“Look, old man, isn’t that just beautiful?”, said the Child and let go of Santa’s arm.
“It is,” replied Santa, “but what does it help?”
“You’ll see,” said the Child, “Just give me some apples, I have an idea.”
Santa Claus made a puzzled face, he didn’t think that the Child would want to eat the cold apples. He still had something left in his hipflask, but he didn’t think it proper to offer schnappes to the Holy Child.
He took down his pannier and dug up some apples. Then he took his knife from his pocket, whetted it on a tree, and proffered it to the Child.
“Well look at you how clever you are!” said the Child, “now cut me some pieces of string, maybe two or three inches, and little wooden pegs.”
The old man thought all this a bit strange, but he did as he was asked. When he had the string and the pegs ready the Child took them, stuck one of the pegs into an apple, tied some string to it, and hung that to one of the branches.
“There. Now we have to put more of them on the other branches,” the Child said, “and you can help, but be careful that the snow doesn’t fall off the branches.”
The old man helped, without knowing what it all meant, but it was fun after all, and when the tree was full of the red apples he stood back a step or two, and said “Look how cute that is! But what is it good for?”
“Does everything always have to be good for something?”, asked the Child. “Watch out, it’ll get even better! Give me some nuts!”
The Child took the nuts, poked a peg into each of them, and tied some string to the pegs. Then he would rub a nut against the upper side of his wings, and the nut would turn golden, or it would rub the nut against the underside, and the nut would turn silver, and then he would hang them in between with the apples.
“Now look, isn’t that pretty, old friend?” he said.
“Yes,” replied Santa, “but I still don’t get it…”
“You will,” said the Child. “Do you have some candles?”
“No, but I have tapers” replied Santa.
“That works too”, said the Child, took the tapers, cut them into pieces, and wound one around the top of the tree, and then more of them around the branches, straightened them, and asked “Did you bring flint and tinder with you?”
“Sure”, replied Santa, dug up flint, steel, and tinderbox from his pocket, struck a spark from the flint, and lighted a few matches. Then he offered them to the Child, who took them, and went around the tree lighting all the tapers, first the one on top, then the one to the right, then to the left, and so on.
There stood the little tree now; from in between the dark, snow-covered branches the apples seemed to glow in the candlelight, the golden and silver nuts sparkled, and the yellow tapers looked very festive.
The Holy Child laughed and clapped his hands, Santa was not frowning any more, and the little pomeranian was jumping and barking merrily.
When the lights had burned down a little bit the Holy Child waved his wings, and the lights went out. He told Santa to very carefully cut off the tree, and then they both went down from the mountain and took the colourful little tree with them.
When they came to the village everyone was fast asleep.
At the smallest little house they stopped. Quietly the Child opened the door and entered; Santa followed after him. In the sitting room they found a three-legged little stool that had a hole in the middle, and they put that on the table, and put the tree in it.
Under the tree Santa then put all kind of good things, toys, cakes, sweets, cookies, and nuts, and then they left quietly, as quietliy as they had entered. When the owner of the place woke up next morning, and found the tree, he was so amazed that he could not find any words to describe it.
But when he found little glittery bits of gold and silver on the door frame where the Child’s wing had brushed against it he knew where it all had come from. He lit the lights on the tree, and went to wake up his wife and children.
Oh what joy it was at that house that day! None of the children even looked at the toys, or the cakes and sweets and nuts. They just grabbed each others hands, danced around the tree, and sang every single Christmas song and carol that they could think of, and even the smallest child that still had to be carried crowed as much as it could.
After it got light the friends and relatives of the poor miner came to visit, saw the tree, liked it, and then they all went into the woods to get a tree of their own. The other people in the village saw it, and did it too, and everybody got a tree and decorated it, some decorated it this way, the others that way, but apples, nuts and candles were on all trees.
By evening there was a tree in every single house, and the children were singing and laughing everywhere.
And from there the Christmas tree spread over all of Germany, and from there over the whole world.
But because the very first Christmas tree had been lit in the morning there are regions where people exchange their gifts and celebrate Christmas on Christmas morning.