The ruins of a seventh century castle lie between the cities of Strassburg and Drusenheim in Germany. Though crumbling, a massive gate remains upright. Deeply sunk into the stone archway above the gate is the impression of a small, delicate hand. This is the story that is told about the hand and the origin of Christmas trees.
The lord of the castle was Count Otto von Gorgas, a very handsome and dashing young man whose passion was hunting big game. He was so devoted to hunting that love could not find a way into his heart. In vain did the fair maidens in the land long for a tender glance from the Count. Their mothers abandoned in despair all hope of securing him as a match for their daughters.
One Christmas Eve, Count Otto went on one of his hunts. In the late evening, while chasing a wild boar, he became separated from his hunting mates and wandered deep into the wild thickets in a far off corner of his land. He came upon a spring, the water clear and deep, and decided to drink and wash his hands and arms of the blood from the game he had slain that day.
Though the weather was cold and the ground covered in frost, Count Otto found to his surprise that the water was warm and very pleasant. As he plunged his arms deeper into the spring, a delightful feeling of peace and well-being began coursing through his body. Suddenly, he felt his right hand grasped by another hand softer and smaller than his own. He felt the hand gently draw from his finger a gold ring he always wore. Thinking it surely was only his imagination, he withdrew his hands from the water. Sure enough, the ring was gone!
Though highly annoyed by his loss, the count decided the ring had accidentally slipped from his finger. As the spring was very deep and darkness had fallen upon the land, he remounted his horse and rode back to the castle, resolving to send servants in the morning to drain the spring and fetch his ring.
As a rule, Count Otto was a sound sleeper, but that night he was awakened by the loud baying of the watch-dog in the court-yard. The count strained his ears and distinctly heard the creaking of the drawbridge as it was being lowered. This was followed a few minutes later by the pattering of many feet up the stone stairs and into the chamber next to his own. Then came the sound of soft, mysterious music; music so lovely and haunting that the count's stony heart was touched.
Rising from his bed, Otto hastily dressed himself. Upon turning toward his chamber door, the count heard the tinkling of a small bell. He watched in astonishment as the door slowly opened. Seeing nothing, Otto crossed the threshold into the next room. He found himself in the midst of an assemblage of small but very lovely looking strangers of both sexes who laughed, chatted, danced, and sang without seeming in the least to notice him.
In the middle of this crowd of little people stood a splendid tree from which a great number of colored lamps shed light throughout the room. The branches were hung with diamond stars and crosses, pearl necklaces, rings of rubies and sapphires, and small daggers mounted in gold and studded with the rarest gems.
Lost in wonder at a scene he could not understand, Otto gazed without the power of uttering a single word. As if on cue, the little revelers stopped talking and dancing and fell back to make way for a newcomer. In the bright rays of the Christmas lights, a dazzling vision stood in front of Count Otto.
She was a princess of astonishing beauty. Though only a girl in size, she was a woman in age and possessed an exquisitely formed body. A diamond brooch sparkled in her long, raven black hair and her dress of rose-colored silk stopped just above the floor. She walked up to the count, took his hands in hers, and in the sweetest of voices said, "Dear Otto, I am come to return your call."
Forgetting all his old coldness towards the female sex, he raised her right hand and kissed it. After guiding him to a couch, the lady whispered into his ear, "I am the fairy Ernestine. I have brought you a Christmas present. That which you lost, I fetch back to you." Drawing from her dress a little casket set with diamonds, she placed it in the hand of the count. He opened it and found inside the ring he had lost in the magical spring. Feeling spellbound and totally captivated, Otto drew the lovely Ernestine into his arms. Before they parted for the night, the two had fallen madly in love and Ernestine had consented to be his bride. Only one thing she required of him; he must never use the word "death" in her presence. Fairies are immortal and the spirits must not be reminded that she was bound to a mortal husband. Being in love, Otto readily promised this.
Seven years later, the still very much in love couple were to be honored at a jousting tournament. Being greatly occupied in finding just the right dress to wear, Ernestine kept her husband waiting until his patience was worn out. "Fair lady," he exclaimed without thinking when she at last appeared before him, "you are so long making ready, you would be a good messenger to send for Death."
Scarcely had he uttered the fatal word than with a loud wail the lovely lady began to falter in her steps! She placed her hand against the stone wall of the great hall as if to brace herself. Otto, with great alarm and regret, could do nothing but watch as his wife's hand seem to melt the stone, and then she slowly disappeared.
Count Otto eventually went the way of all flesh and joined his fathers in the great hereafter. But, before he passed on, he had the block of stone with the imprint of the small hand placed above the castle gate. And while his life lasted, every Christmas Eve, he would set up a lighted tree in the hall where he first met lady Ernestine, in the vain hope of wooing her back to his arms.
This, it is said, was the origin of the Christmas tree.