O Tannenbaum: the delight of the German Christmas tree in Barossa homes and churches

Christmas tree in the Strait Gate Church, Light Pass. Date unknown. Source: Luhr’s Cottage archive

A Short History of the Christmas Tree

Christmas trees probably began as a European pagan tradition long before the coming of Christ: homes were decorated with the branches of evergreen fir trees in order to bring colour and light into their dull winters. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was also a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.

The modern Christmas tree originated in western Germany. Candles, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, were often added. In the same room was the “Christmas pyramid,” a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century, the Christmas pyramid and the tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.

The custom of decorating a tree on Christmas Eve was widespread among the German Lutherans by the 18th century. Introduced into England in the early 19th century, the Christmas tree became popular in the mid-19th century by German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys, small gifts and candles hung from the branches by ribbons, lace and paper chains.

Therefore, German and English migrants to South Australia in the nineteenth century, and then, in turn, their descendants, faithfully followed the tradition of the Christmas tree.

The German Christmas tree (Tannenbaum) is usually assembled and decorated on Christmas Eve, though some families in more modern times put up their tree during the Advent season.

Below are some evocative descriptions of the magic of Christmas Eve in the Barossa of the mid-twentieth century from a novelist and a cultural historian: please enjoy!

Colin Thiele’s description of a mid- century Christmas tree

A week later it was Christmas Eve. Everyone stopped harvesting early that night and all the people from the district, men, women and children went down to the little church in the valley. They did it every year. They’d been doing it as long as he could remember, and he hoped they would always keep on doing it as long as he lived. For there was something about Christmas that made him feel different, almost as if he wanted to cry. The great Christmas tree rose up almost of the ceiling of the church, gleaming and sparkling with light near the steps of the altar. And when it was ablaze with hundreds of pretty candles it was as if fairyland and heaven had combined. In front of it sat the children, rows and rows of them, their faces bright from the light of the tree and the eyes brighter from their own radiance. Nearby stood the little tableau of joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus in his crib of straw in the stable- straw that seems somehow to fit so naturally into of their own lives in the harvest season. Soon the organ started playing, and the people sang them as they never did for the rest of the year: the fine old carols that mean Christmas and nothing but Christmas- “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”  and” The First Noel” and” Silent Night”. The children sang too- special songs and items of Christmastide- and the pastor read again the story the shepherds and the coming of the angel.

Then all the children filed past the tree to receive a gift and a great bulging bag of Christmas lollies before everyone went out into the mild summer night. And there was peace on Earth and goodwill among men. The stars fairly glistened in the night sky and the land lay still and dark and quiet right up to the crest of the hills. Outside the church the people shook hands and laughed and gave each other Christmas wishes. Bruno thought it was wonderful for people to be so happy. Then at last they begin to trickle off home, some walking and some driving to their own little Christmases is in the parlours and the dining rooms where there would still be more Christmas trees with parcels to be unwrapped and shouts of glee and thanks and the lighting of candles and singing of carols. And finally they were bottles of hop beer from the cellar and good things to eat and new presents to try out and a happy going to bed because tomorrow was Christmas Day.

From the chapter ‘Love and Christmas’ from the 1961 novel, ‘The Sun on the Stubble.’

Christmas Eve recollections: an excerpt from Angela Heuzenroeder’s ‘Barossa Food’.

So when did the moment the celebrations finally arrive? It must surely have been the moment when the family arrived at church for the evening service.

The door would be wide open for the warm summer night; the windows blazed in the dark as the family joined a throng following the strains of the organ into the church. A wonderful sight awaited them. To one side of the altar the Christmas tree rose right up the ceiling, glimmering with candles and decorations. To the other was a Nativity scene, a thatched , wooden stable with carved animals, shepherds, shepherdesses and the three Magi. All were gazing at the family by the manger.

The sweet perfume of the pine tree and the Christmas lilies near the altar: the warm air and candle light, the strains of the old songs, interlaced with the words of calm, brightness and radiance: these were the heralds of the Christmas season.

Outside, after the service, the children dug their fingers into the paper bags of lollies that had been handed out with the Sunday school prizes. They did not notice elder brothers and sisters sneaking away into the darkness but they, too, became eager to return to the house and waited impatiently for their parents.

Paper lanterns bobbing above the verandah, each with a candle glowing inside, welcomed their return. Was it time to go into the big room? Yes, to come and see Father Christmas has been!

That moment when the children stepped into the room and saw their family Christmas tree for the first time gave them their most ardent and firmly fixed memories of Christmas. Far more important than the chairs heaped with presents- or the bowls of nuts, sweets and cherries- was the tree slowly revolving on his pedestal to the sound of the tinkling music box. Candles glimmered and burned- now softly, now brightly – as the tree turned and the silver and white decorations and the Schaumkuchen, Weihnachtskuchen and Honigkuchen (types of biscuits- JJ) swung slowly around.

Everyone knew that this would be the only night when the candles could be lit: the pine tree dried off quickly in the Australian heat whether it was standing in a pot of water or on the music box pedestal. Even now one of the aunts or uncles stood by with a bucket or hose just in case the tree should catch fire. The moment for the Christmas tree was really that fleeting moment when everyone stood at the doorway and saw it for the first time.

pp191-193, Chapter 13 ‘Christmas Celebrations’ from Barossa Food (1999) by Angela Heuzenroeder

Some early and mid-century Christmas greetings from The Luhr’s Cottage archive

English Translation: Glory to God in the highest
Many German and English migrants settled in the Barossa Valley from the 1840s onwards. Therefore cards and greetings found in the archives could be in old or modern German or in English.

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