Oh, Christmas Tree!
First, head over to Spotify for some appropriately ambient music to this playlist of Christmas tree tunes in at least 4 languages and several styles.
Christmas Tree Origins
It often takes an outside perspective to get us to think about things we take for granted. Sixteen years ago, when my now hubby and I were friends and on the verge of getting together, he quizzed me about this Christmas tradition of “bringing in a dead tree in the house and decorating it.” The way he phrased it stopped me in my tracks momentarily. I thought to myself “Yea. strange, when you say it that way… but oh what fun, and what memories…” By way of response I remember telling him I didn’t know the exact history (aside from learning that it hat pagan roots) though it was a very big part of Christmas celebrations since my earliest memories. My memory only yielded some vague recollection about celebrating life in the dead of the winter (at the winter solstice), with evergreens, because they maintained their color and needles year round.
He piqued my curiosity enough to head over to google, but as with other traditions I googled a decade ago (nalla daaram; rules about nail cutting), info was lacking. Wanna know why? One reason is this fun fact: Wikipedia was not even a year old that December! How did we ever survive?!
But back to the topic. What gives about the dead tree? You can (and should) read all the still-disputed details on the “Christmas Tree” page on Wikipedia (or this quick video the History channel, or lots of others you’ll of course find). But in the meantime, I’ll share the points I find most interesting.
First, generally speaking, it’s a folding in of other winter traditions with Christmas, which of course is when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Current (but still debated) belief is that the tradition as we know it originated in Germany, and there are also offshoot predecessors in Georgia (a Chichilaki uses dried hazelnut or walnut branches, shaped into a small coniferous tree ), Poland (Podłaźniczka is an evergreen branch hung from the ceiling, associated with Koliada) and Germany, Estonia & Latvia, where there are various historical reports of dancing around trees decorated with edible treats.
By the early 18th century, it was spreading in Germany, and by the early 19th century it was adopted by European nobility. The first recorded Christmas tree in Britain was in 1800, at a children’s party in given by Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (German-born wife of George III. North America allegedly saw their first Christmas tree in 1781, brought there by Hessian soldiers. In 1836, the first known printed picture of a tree, in a frontispiece to Hermann Bokum’s 1836 The Stranger’s Gift.
More interesting still is how pervasive trees are today, even in the homes of non-Christians. It seems to have come full circle: it began as a tradition outside Christianity, was folded into the Christmas traditions, and now it has taken on it’s own life outside Christianity once again.
Last in the researched fact section, in response to a query from my daughter this week: Why are red and green are the colors of Christmas? Thank you Wikipedia:
“The traditional colors of Christmas decorations are red, green, and gold. Red symbolizes the blood of Jesus, which was shed in his crucifixion, while green symbolizes eternal life, and in particular the evergreen tree, which does not lose its leaves in the winter, and gold is the first color associated with Christmas, as one of the three gifts of the Magi, symbolizing royalty..”
Christmas Tree Traditions
Because this site is all about how traditions evolve over time, I’ll note our own families traditions, with a nod to general practices here in the states.
- Real vs Fake – Some folks do fake trees for longevity, or other practical reasons, but purists (and I’m one of them) would rather have no tree, than a fake tree.
- Timing – This is a very personal choice, and often depends on the above choice. We usually put it up quite early (weekend after Thanksgiving) because we have a Cookie & Cocktails party (cookie post coming soon, but don’t forget the candy cane kulfi!) early in December, and since we are often away the week of Christmas.
- Source – For some, the source is very important. Some will make a pilgrimage to a Christmas tree farm (which have all sorts of specialties themselves), marking their favorite tree with a ribbon, and coming back to cut it down, cart it away and drive it home. You may know of this from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (a classic, funny Christmas movie). In the city, most folks get it from one of many pop-up stands that open on street corners all over the city. My first year in Brooklyn, I brought one home to Brooklyn from the Upper West (on the subway!) while visiting a friend, because somehow I had not seen one in my neighborhood yet.
- Colored lights – Anyone with a tree has a certain preference on colored vs all white (or other colored) lights. Knowing the premise of this site, I’m sure that you, dear reader, are not surprised to learn that we are all multi-color, all the way.
- Ornaments as Mementos – As with my own childhood, there is much reverence about adorning the tree with the ornaments that represent all sorts of memories throughout the years.
- Decor “theme” – Some folks have themed trees of only a few colors, or certain type or ornaments, or subject or ….. But once again, you will not be surprised to learn that our tree is a mishmash of all sorts of ornaments. Some were gifts from special people, some are souvenirs from travel, others I made (some as a child, myself!). There’s antiques and brand new ones. Store bought, and homemade. All colors, shapes, sizes, types; some are dainty and gorgeous, while others are completely tacky. And of course candy canes. No tinsel or garland (i.e. no extra bling).
- Topper – There is usually a star or an angel. A star signifying the star that lead the three wise men to the baby Jesus in the manger far away, and the angels who appeared to Mary to announce the immaculate conception that lead to her birthing Jesus Christ. Ours is topped with an angel I made when I moved to Brooklyn in 2001. It’s simple but after so long, it’s so very special.
More photos coming soon… still need to sort the Macbook/ overall photos issue!
What are your favorite traditions surrounding your Christmas tree?