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O Tannenbaum

Trees, and woodland, have deep significance in German tradition

It is a well-known fact – and oft-repeated one at this time of year – that the tradition of the Christmas tree came from Germany. Along with several other bits and bobs of Christmas.

But for Germans, the tree is not just for Christmas: it represents a whole national psyche wrapped up in a forest. This is a country which attaches a huge significance to woodland. Furthermore, perhaps surprisingly given its significant industrialisation and its big population, one third of Germany’s land area (11.4 million hectares) still remains covered by trees, which makes it one of the most densely wooded countries in Europe.

Some of the afforestation will be familiar territory to tourists: the Black Forest, the Harz Mountains, and probably also the Eifel, but actually the densest woodland areas are in the Rhineland Palatinate and Hesse, where 42 percent of the land area is covered by trees.

Hesse also happens to be Brothers Grimm country, and anyone familiar with the stories will know how often they feature woodland, getting lost in forests, and of course worthy woodcutters, who are almost always the apogee of honest folk. The landscape around the ‘Sleeping Beauty castle’ (Donröshenschloss) Sababurg not far from Kassel in Hesse includes the Urwald section of the giant Reinhardswald forest, a place where you can really suspend your disbelief whilst wandering through a cathedral of beech trees and giant anthropomorphically-shaped oaks, some of which are over a thousand years old.

In fact oak and beech historically should be the most common species of tree in Germany, but pressure on the forest industry and the need for fast growth means that these slow movers have been superseded by spruce, so now only 40 percent is deciduous.

But woodland still has its hold over the German soul. You’ve only got to glance at German culture: Wagner operas are full of gloomy forest, and Caspar David Friedrich’s lonely figures are forever depicted looking out over or standing amongst lonely woodland; search for him on Google images and you’d think you’d stumbled into Tolkein country.

For artists, trees are seen as a poetic bridge between heaven and earth, but they also play other symbolic roles in daily German life. At Easter, many people decorate living trees with eggs. On the first of May, villages erect tall maypoles made from the trunks of firs. And some builders still place a small tree on the roof as a topping-out symbol on a completed house.

If ever there was any doubt that the German forest remains a place of mystery and of quest, you’ve only got to look at the column inches that the recent ‘Forest Boy’ story generated, when a teenage boy wandered into Berlin, claiming to have been living in the woods for so long that he no longer knew who he was. The fact that he was so readily believed, and became such an overnight celebrity, is all about the perceived power of the forest.

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