Deck the Halls With All Things Jolly
From my earliest recollections of childhood Christmases, a memory that endures and to this day still “rev’s” my imagination, is the ritual of putting up the Tree.
I will never forget hiking through those snowy hills of the nearby tree farm, in freezing temperatures, to find and tag the perfect tree for Christmas at our house.
My sisters and I industriously hand-painted all kinds of decorations: angels, Santas, reindeer, gingerbread houses and candy canes. My favorite job was applying angel hair and glitter. We glittered everything. Florenz Ziegfeld and Cher would approve. It was dazzling!
Our mom collected glass ornaments that were made in Germany during the 1940’s. Little did we know then how very special they were and how rare they would become in time. To my chagrin, many of these rare ornaments were either lost or broken. Luckily, some do remain. You can be sure they are treasured.
How did this time-honored, joyful tradition begin?
Here’s a brief history of the Christmas Tree.
The “Evergreen” has held special meaning for all people throughout history. Even before the dawn of Christianity, people from ancient civilizations festooned their winter doorways and windows with opulent boughs of evergreen, in anticipation of the return of Spring and Summer, when the countryside would once again be green and lush.
Later, the early Romans marked the Winter Solstice with a feast called “Saturnalia”, in honor of Saturn, God of Agriculture. The Solstice marked the point at which days would become longer. The Romans celebrated this joyous event by decorating their homes and temples with evergreens.
We can thank Germany for the beautiful tradition of the Christmas Tree as we know it. Story has it that Martin Luther, the 16th Century Protestant reformer, was walking through the woods one night and observed the stars twinkling through the branches of the pine trees. He was so taken by the wondrous beauty that he wanted to recapture this magnificent spectre for his family. He erected a small fir tree in his main room, and wired its branches with lighted candles. Voila. The Christmas sky was recaptured in his livingroom. And thus, the legend of the first decorated Christmas Tree was born.
There are many great traditions surrounding the Christmas Tree, from all corners of the world. However, this time-honored tradition did not catch on immediately. The Christmas Tree tradition was introduced to England by way of the Georgian kings, who hailed from Germany. The British were not quick to adopt the German Christmas Tree tradition, mainly because they were not fond of the German monarchy.
It was not until the very popular Queen Victoria and her likeable German Prince, Albert, were pictured in the “Illustrated London News”, standing with their children around a Christmas Tree, that the English embraced the tradition. Because of Victoria and Albert’s great popularity, it became fashionable, not only in British Society, but also in fashion-conscious East Coast American Society, to have a Christmas Tree.
Not until the mid-19th Century did “grassroots America” catch on to the idea of the Christmas Tree (even though Christmas Trees had been introduced much earlier, in 1747, by German settlers in Pennsylvania).
The early German trees were decorated with wafers and golden sugar twists and colorful paper flowers… themes related to the Garden of Eden and the fertility of Paradise.
Tinsel was invented in Germany, as well. The earliest tinsel was made of real silver. As a matter of fact, silver was used right up to the mid-20th Century.
Some of us can remember tinsel on the tree. It played a major role in my childhood Christmases. The tinsel of my youth was not genuine silver… rather, strips of aluminum foil. I remember my mom placing each crinkled, glittering strand on the branches. One by one, the icicles were draped, until our tree was transformed into shimmering magic. It took hours to do, but this ritual was considered an absolute necessity in the family Christmas tradition. After the holidays, it was the children’s job to remove the tinsel, strand by monotonous strand, and to carefully pack it away until the following year.
In the Victorian era, the trees were decorated with fancy glass garlands, tinsel angels, small toys, tinsel strands, candles, and paper baskets with sugared almonds in them. In the 1870’s glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Germany. Glass ornaments became a status symbol: the more glass one owned, the greater one’s status. And around this time, patriotic trees were all the vogue, decorated from top to bottom with flags.
America contributed electric lights and tree lights in 1882, and then introduced metal hooks around 1892. By 1890, the “High Victorian” Christmas Tree became a child’s joy to behold, standing as tall as the very high ceilings, the taller the better, aglow with glitter, tinsel, and toys… as many ornaments as would fit.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the British lost some of their fervor for large Christmas Trees, and the trend toward smaller ones took their place. The large holiday tree emerged once again, however, during the Dickensian nostalgia of the 1930’s, particularly in Britain.
My nephew has created a tradition celebrating the great Victorian Christmas Tree. Each year, without fail, he manages the task of erecting a 19-foot tree in his home, adorning it with what look like a million small, flickering lights, and what seems like an equal number of ornaments. The ornament collection grows yearly. The tree looks like the opening act of the “Nutcracker Suite”… it is nothing short of magnificent. He and my niece have two small sons. Can you just imagine what a thrill that tree is for them?
Artificial trees have gone in and out of vogue for various reasons. In Germany, people were in the habit of cutting the perfect top portions off of the forest trees, a practice which threatened the forests, as it severely damaged trees and their growing patterns. In order to protect the forests, Germany introduced goose- feather trees.
Years later America and England introduced “bottlebrush” trees. Aluminum trees were the rage in the ‘60’s, and have made a strong comeback.
Collecting tree ornaments has become a passionate and profitable hobby for many people. For many of us, collecting ornaments is a year ‘round pursuit. Among the favorites are one-of-a-kind glass or porcelain signed ornaments, fabric and beaded ornaments, jeweled ornaments, limited edition glass ornaments, crystal limited editions, and vintage pre- and post-war German ornaments.
It’s all great fun.
Check the “Christmas Ornaments” section in SHOPSICLE to see some of the terrific hand-blown glass and crystal ornaments that we have found for you. Simply irresistible.
The Christmas Tree has gone through many incarnations, from trees made of wood, paper, aluminum tinsel, goose feathers, bottlebrush, realistic artificial trees, ceramic trees, and real, live trees. Tall or short, real or artificial, decorated with gingerbread men and popcorn, or heirloom treasures and Swarovski crystal, WE LOVE THEM ALL!
FYI: Today, over 32,000,000 (that’s 32 million!) Christmas trees are sold each year. The total area of tree farms in the U.S. has been estimated at over one million acres. About 100,000 people are employed in the live Christmas tree industry.
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