By Bethany Schneekloth
Every year without fail, during the Christmas season, people put out their angels. Whether they are topping trees, ornaments, or little figurines decorating an area, the angels all have similar characteristics with their horns of gold and vibrant dresses. With wings of either gold or white feathers, they are beautiful to see. But when did the use of these angels as toppers for our trees become popular? To understand where and when this tradition began, we need to look back at the original Christmas story.
Angels (mal’akh) are the messengers or warriors of God. In the book of Luke 1:13-17, the angel Gabriel goes to Zechariah in the temple proclaiming that his wife will be with child. When Zechariah questioned Gabriel, he became mute until Luke 1:64 after the naming of his son John. This child then grew to become John the Baptist. The birth of Jesus was foretold in Luke 1:26-38 as Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary proclaiming the joyful news; this was the Annunciation.
The next part of the Christmas story is the angels of the Lord appearing to the shepherds. Proclaiming that Christ the Lord was born that day, the shepherds journeyed to see the newborn, and they returned, telling all people what they had seen. They went praising God for what they had seen within the manger.
As evidence from what you just read, angels are the messengers of God. Tying them into the Christmas story is an integral part of the season. Most angels’ forms were men, so how and when did they change into the dainty ladies and children we know and love now? For that, we have to go back to 16th century Germany around the city of Nuremberg.
Martin Luther sought to pull away from the focus on the Roman Catholic saints. December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, was the day of gift-giving, but that slowly changed as time progressed. Luther’s initial intention was for the Christ child to deliver the presents putting the focus back on the birth of Jesus. Over time the gift giver changed from infant Jesus to a young angel girl.
This angel is known as the Christkind (Christkindl); she gained a solidified image in Medieval Germany. Within the Middle Ages, Christmas plays were very common, as they were a form of enjoyment that large groups could come and watch. The Christkindl was the one to announce the birth of Jesus, dressed in robes and wings. The wings, robes, and crown on top of the girl’s head all golden, with the girl’s blonde hair, give a feeling of it being an ethereal figure. This is one reason why the angel’s form was changed from a man to a woman for the Christmas season.
As a tree topper, the angel is a relatively newer addition to the vast collection of Christmas decorations in the grand scheme of things. The angel on top of the tree became popular with Queen Victoria, as many newer traditions seem to begin. The story is that in the mid-1800s, Prince Albert brought the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle as Victoria was rather popular amongst her subjects and other nations, the action of decorating the trees caught on rather quickly.
I have always loved to decorate for the Christmas season. I remember always looking at the angels that we put up around the house. Learning more about the angels has made my fascination spark once again. The Renaissance paintings with angels have become points of learning for me. The old masters depicted these heavenly beings and integrated them into the spanning murals of the ancient chapels.
Bethany Schneekloth is a student at Mabel-Canton High School. She is one of nine area students participating in the Journal Writing Project, now in its 22nd year.