Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, George III’s consort is generally credited with ordering the first Christmas Tree in England, making it enormously popular with the aristocracy of the time.
Years later, when the German Prince Albert wed Queen Victoria, he too implemented the custom of bringing evergreens indoors during Holiday season. This time it caught on en masse, making it all the rage (as they say) for the middle and lower classes. But as you sense, the tradition goes much further back.
The Snow-Shrouded Land.
Winter had come and held fast to this stretch of forest. Snow drifted to the eves on the North and West corners of the homestead. Tallow lamps flickered behind skins stretched tight over windows. A trail of smoke trickled upward through a narrow roof vent.
Winter had also brought death. The upland forest was unforgiving at the best of times, but this year, Father Odin seemed to be in a mood to test his people.
The door at the center of the hall swung open on oiled leather hinges. Faint light spilled onto the crystalline snow. A man stepped forth, tall, deep of chest, swaddled from crown to feet in layers of tanned hide and furs. An unseen hand carefully shut the door behind him, providing him with the cover of dark once more.
He stood for a moment, blending with the bulk of the long house, allowing his eyes to adjust to the moonless night, his presence marked only by his vaporous breath by the faint glow of the stars.
Of Trees and Men.
Torgeir raked his eyes over the tree line, scanning for any signs of danger. The lack of forage had sent the little creatures to their burrows, and the deer to the shelter of the long-hanging bows. The predators of the forest knew this and likely retreated to their dens. But one could never be sure. And then there was man.
Torgeir was swaddled from crown to feet in several layers of tanned hide topped with a bearskin cloak. In one mittened hand he bore a heavy long axe. The handle was hickory, smooth and polished. The head was fine steel, obtained from a Dacian merchant, forged at the Roman fort two hundred leagues to the South.
The Romans. Torgeir shook his head. This close to the Jutland put the village and its satellite homesteads beyond their grasp, but not necessarily beyond their influence. Half his cousins served under the Eagle. Torgeir himself contracted himself as a forest scout between planting and harvest.
The Italians did not give a formidable first impression, the tallest of them coming up to his shoulder. But he had seen them fight, and it was a mistake to underestimate them.
The tool was superbly balanced and took three times longer to loose its edge than the bronze and iron products made in the village. The Romans knew their craft. Torgeir slug the axe across his back, took a step away from the long house and spared a glance to the West. The village had lost three infants so far – cousins, and one elder – Torgeir’s great-uncle. Father Odin was determined to weed out the weak, or so the shamans said.
With a sigh of resignation, Torgeir waded into the knee-deep snow, having marked the path days before. A swath leading through a number of clearings and glades, it was wide enough to allow passage for his return.
Torgeir broke the tree line and waited a dozen heartbeats, alert to the sound of padding paws or the careless twig snap. Satisfied he had the forest to himself for the time being, he trudged on in earnest.
He tracked his time by the movement of the stars, turning his gaze upward at each clearing. The stars had moved less than a hand span by the time he came upon the tree. Half-again as tall himself and perfectly formed, the spruce possessed its own resplendent beauty, the thane standing watch at the edge of this clearing.
Days before he had sawed away the lower branches, leaving the trunk bare from the snowy ground up to his knee.
Gods of Indifference.
Father Odin had taken his due this season. An adversarial god, he would yield this gift, on this night of the Solstice. Torgeir would display the tree inside, his wife and sisters would weave swags and wreaths from its trimmings. The family would adorn it with bits of metal, dried fruit, and twigs of berries in honor of the forest spirits who would ensure the coming of spring.
Torgeir flicked the mittens off his hands and un-slung the great axe. Taking it in both hands he dug his feet into the snow until he could feel the forest floor through the thick souls of his cold-weather boots. Thus planted, he brought the axe up over his shoulder.
The head bit deep into the trunk, shaking most of the snow from the branches.
Chips shot out in all directions. Torgeir paused for a moment, listening for movement from the forest. Nothing.
<Thunk>… <Thunk>… <Thunk>
The tree shuttered with each blow.
The tree pitched back, giving a final protesting crack and separated leaving a stump. Torgeir re-slung the axe, donned his mittens, and took the tree by its stem. With a small grunt he lifted his end and began the brief journey home.
He was halfway through the final clearing when he spotted them.
Copper Crown smelled the man before he saw him. Bidding the rest of the pack to follow at a distance, he crested the small rise marking the boundary of the clearing. All lupine cunning, he approached in silence, his eyes and ears all that were visible above the small hill’s ridgeline.
The man was alone, walking less than one hundred paces away, dragging a tree behind him from one end of the clearing to the other. The two legged ones were a strange lot, with many customs and idiosyncrasies he could not understand.
The man stopped as if sensing Copper Crown’s eyes upon him. The tree fell from his hand in a puff of snow. The man reached behind him and pulled forth a heavy looking weapon. It was an arm with a single heavy claw at the end. Copper Crown had seen the two-legged ones use these to great effect. The man turned meeting Copper Crown’s eyes with a predatory gaze of his own.
Seeing no point in remaining partially hidden, Copper Crown walked to the top of the hill. Man and wolf regarded each other. With the subtle body language of his kind, he signaled to the rest of his pack.
The other four padded to the top of the hill, flanking their leader. His sister, his mate, and their two children waited a pace behind their leader, all eyes on the man below them.
Thus reinforced, Copper Crown made a show of bristling ever so slightly.
Years of honing his senses to the pulse of the forest compelled Torgeir to stop and listen. There was movement to the right. He turned his head in that direction, running his gaze up the gentle slope. A pair of eyes, reflecting the star-lit snow peered just above the crest. A moment later, a lupine snout and a lean furry body followed the eyes as the creature padded into full view.
Smoothly, Torgeir dropped the tree into the snow and reached for the axe. With his other hand he gave his hip a discreet pat. A foot-long hunting knife hung from his belt in easy reach.
Ghost-like, another wolf crested the rise, followed by three more. Torgeir calculated the distance to the homestead and resisted the urge to run. No, this would be settled here.
Up the slope, Copper Crown did his own calculations. Unconsciously he jutted his head forward, taking advantage of the closer proximity. Drawing air deeply through his nostrils, and passing it down to his tongue, Copper Crown considered the more detailed information. The two legged one was definitely male. This simply confirmed what he’d detected before. Full grown. Prime of strength, prime of health. Fear was present. But it was managed. Managed very well. This one would not turn and run allowing the pack to take him down from behind. Plus he had that huge claw.
This was not good. Copper Crown re-calculated. Over and over, he played out different approaches to the problem, without success. Try as he might, he could come up with no plan of attack where they would not loose at least two members. Maybe three.
In the end, Copper Crown’s stomach made the decision for the rest of the pack. They may have been hungry, the last kill having been a day ago. But they were not starving. It would be sometime before their stomachs completely emptied, affecting performance. In the coming days there would be other prey. Easier prey. There always was.
Copper Crown assumed the appropriate posture and sent the message down the collective bond.
Not this one.
There was a brief protest from the younger ones, but they were easily silenced by a barely audible snarl. The pack turned to their left, trotting lightly over the snow. Copper Crown spared the two-legged one a backward glance. The man was still on guard, watching them depart. Wolves didn’t salute, but Copper Crown was keen enough to know the concept. He figured the two-legged one understood as well.
Torgeir watched the small pack disappear into the forest. He re-slung the axe, and grabbed the tree stem once again.
Two hundred paces among the trees and he caught the scent of burning wood. Another hundred and the forest began thinning out. In the distance he could just discern the pinprick glow of the homestead’s animal-hide window coverings.
A warm mug of pulped apple would be waiting.