The Christmas tree heralds back to much earlier times, when pagan worshipers of ancient and early medieval Europe viewed trees, and most elements in nature, as spiritually-infused. The early Christian church, in its attempt to win over tribal overlords and their followers, incorporated and reinterpreted pagan rituals so as to make their religion more appealing to these powerful warriors. The tradition become more entrenched in reformation Germany and then was popularized by Prince Albert in nineteenth-century England. For those interested in a more in-depth history see the link below:
The Christmas tree figures largely in American culture, with everything from the Charlie Brown tree, with a few drooping ornaments and dropping needles, to the spectacular lighted tree of Rockefeller Square in NYC having iconic stature. I've been thinking about my own history with Christmas trees and what it reflects about me personally and the times I've lived through. When I was five I remember we had one of those shiny silver aluminum trees--very indicative of the modern times. My mother made ornaments for the tree out of styrofoam that she cut into shapes with an exact-o knife and then decorated. I remember the styrofoam made her hands break out. We had a color wheel that would turn and throw different lights against the silver of the branches. I believed a few years later we sold the tree at a garage sale--by that time it seemed hopelessly gauche and tacky. Of course, such trees have made a comeback and I kind of wish I had that tree now.
When we moved to a different town, and a colonial suburban home, we went for the real tree. I remember that I always insisted we get a blue spruce because I loved the color. It was horrible to try to decorate. It's needles were razor sharp and it shed incessantly. We strung popcorn and cranberries and again my mother crafted her own ornaments (this time using a kit to create old-fashioned wood ornaments). Those I still have and we use them on our tree now. I remember the move from large, colored outdoor bulbs to the more "tasteful" white twinkle lights. I also remember a local store , in the 1980s, which specialized in Christmas trees (high-end artificial ones) and that would decorate them according to themes. You could have easily dropped several hundred dollars on these designer holiday trees.
As I moved through apartments, I had smaller and more modest trees--nothing special stands out. But a few years ago, when I moved into my current home, I decided my daughter would have a real tree. Thankfully, the trees of today are grown for fullness, with lots of branches to hold ornaments, needles that hold water and don't dry out immediately. and straight and lovely trunks. No more scrounging for tree that looks somewhat balanced. They're all pretty good. And though I think theme trees can be cute, that's not what we've done. Most of our ornaments have been collected from our travels or have some personal reference or meaning. We have ornaments from Bermuda, an Eiffel Tower, Beatles ornaments, a ceramic owl from Plymouth Plantation, an ornament from Falling Water, ones with flutes and lutes (yes, we play these) and we'll need a saxophone (my daughter plays this). We have Nutcrackers and ballerinas, kittens galore, ornaments made in preschool, and this year--in honor of Frozen Mania--an Olaf stuffed toy at the top of the tree. It is all very personalized and eclectic. And lights, oh so much better now. We have large colored bulbs but they are LED so they don't get hot and they don't impact the electric bill.
So I'm thinking about what the Christmas tree says about me and about our culture:
- We still relish bringing the natural world into our homes. There is nothing like the smell of fresh pine and the allure of have a wild element in the house.
- We carry visual memories of childhood, hopefully mostly good (but we know that holidays can also bring out the worst in families)
- The act of procuring and decorating is most fun done as a group. Let go of perfection. So what if the tree is a little crooked or the ornaments not perfectly placed?
- There's value to letting go--don't be THAT family who leaves the tree up until St. Patrick's Day. We really don't need to carry things to extremes. Holidays are more special if they are time-limited.
- Worry less about what you're putting under the tree. Why not one simple and meaningful gift for each person?
Enjoy your traditions, enjoy one another--
Artfully yours, Lisabeth