Today Kathryn Blake and I present you with an early Advent Calendar treat!
Below is the first of a four-part series titled “The Christmas Tree Story.” Part two is on her blog here.
Parts three and four will be co-hosted on our blogs on December 3rd for the Advent Calendar.
I apologize that some of these photos are a bit small, but you can enlarge a little by clicking on them. WordPress is a bit temperamental about photos lately. 🙂
A Christmas tree is a decorated evergreen conifer, usually a spruce, pine or fir, since those trees have been traditionally associated with the celebration of Christmas. Today, “realistic” looking artificial trees, have grown in popularity as well. And to my eye, they are a great improvement over the pipe-cleaner aluminum trees of the 60s.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year (the Winter Solstice) falls on December 21 or December 22. Many ancient people believed the sun was a god and winter came every year because the god had grown sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow when the sun god was returned to his full glory and summer returned.
Originally, the holiday tree was decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts or dates, and later strings of edible popcorn were added. In the 18th century, candles illuminated the tree, which with electrification evolved into strings of gaily-colored Christmas lights. Today, wide varieties of traditional ornaments exist, such as garland, tinsel, and even candy canes (plastic or real). An angel or star may be placed at the top of the tree, to represent the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
The custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly the 15th century, when “devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes.” The custom acquired popularity outside of Germany during the second half of the 19th century. The Christmas tree has also been referred to as a “Yule-tree”, especially in connection with its folkloristic origins.
Family decorations typically include a mix of family traditions and personal tastes; even a small unattractive ornament, if passed down from a parent or grandparent, may come to represent considerable emotional value, and be given a place of pride on the tree. Conversely, trees decorated by professional designers for department stores and other institutions usually have a “theme”; a set of predominant colors, multiple instances of each type of ornament, and larger decorations that may be more complicated to set up correctly.
Because candles were used to illuminate trees until strings of electric bulbs became available, a mat (UK) or skirt (US) was often placed below the tree to protect the floor by catching the dripping candle wax, and collecting any fallen needles. Even with today’s dripless candles, electric lights and artificial trees, a skirt is often added as a decorative feature that also serves to hide the tree stand, which though unsightly is an important safety feature for natural trees that require a steady intake of water to keep their needles fresh. So, what began as ordinary cloth to catch wax droplets has become much more ornate, with some displaying intricate embroidery or appliqués, while others are fitted with their own lights to give the illusion of sparkling snow laying beneath the tree.
Some families have a nativity scene, model train, or Christmas village placed on the mat or skirt beneath the tree. As Christmas presents arrive, they are generally placed on the tree skirt as well. These presents are in addition to the gifts Santa brings, of course.
For those of you who may be curious, the difference between a mat and skirt is simply that a mat is placed under the Christmas tree stand, while a skirt is placed over it. The tree skirt has a hole in the middle for the tree’s trunk and a slot cut to the outside edge so that it can be placed around the tree (and beneath its branches) easily. When the tree being used is fresh, rather than manufactured, a plain mat of fabric or plastic is often placed under the stand and skirt to protect the floor (if wood) from scratches and water spillages.
In addition to their indoor decorations, many people decorate their outdoor trees with food that birds and other wildlife might enjoy, such as garlands made from unsalted popcorn or cranberries, fruit halves, and seed-covered suet cakes. Not to mention the creative light displays some households put up to compete with their neighbors.
But no matter what your reason is for decorating, ’tis the season to be jolly, and once your decorated Christmas tree is fully dressed in its lights and ornaments, it’s difficult not to sit back and admire your handiwork with a smile for a job well done.