Christmas Approaches…

In a couple of days time it will be December 12th. Some of you reading this may be reading it on that very date, but for many it will still be a couple of days away. Already the shops will be getting a little bit busier, although in no way do I think they will be as busy as a few years ago. That has been due to the changes in our lifestyles over the last few years. I see mentions on Facebook of folk who put their Christmas decorations up, the same with trees. I mention December 12th as it was my dad’s birthday and although he sadly passed away some years ago now, I still follow our family tradition of putting up decorations, cards and the like starting on that day. I found it interesting though to research the history of Christmas trees which goes back to the symbolic use of evergreens in ancient Egypt and Rome. 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 trees such as pine, spruce, and fir, ancient peoples 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. Here in the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become 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 again when the sun god was strong and summer would return. The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from his illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes, which symbolised for them the triumph of life over death. Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon, farms and orchards would be green and fruitful once more so to mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life whilst the Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder. But Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it back in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling through all the evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity though. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747 but as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans. It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The second governor of the pilgrims, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalising any frivolity. Also, Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offence, in addition people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

An illustration from a December 1848 edition of the Illustrated London News shows Queen Victoria and her family surrounding a Christmas tree.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In 1846 the popular royals, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable, not only in Britain but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived. By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S.A. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling. The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan biscuits. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colours and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became a tradition around the world, but their history varies from country to country. Here are just a few examples.

Down in Brazil, although Christmas falls during the summer there, they sometimes decorate pine trees with little pieces of cotton that represent falling snow whilst in China, of the small percentage of Chinese who do celebrate Christmas, most erect artificial trees decorated with spangles and paper chains, flowers, and lanterns. Christmas trees are called “trees of light.” In Canada, the German settlers who migrated there from the United States in the 1700s brought with them many of the things associated with Christmas we cherish today, for example Advent calendars, gingerbread houses, biscuits and of course Christmas trees. When Prince Albert put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, the Christmas tree became a tradition throughout the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Over in Germany, besides the Martin Luther legend, another says that in the early 16th century, people in Germany combined two customs that had been practiced in different countries around the globe. The Paradise tree (a fir tree decorated with apples) represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Christmas Light, a small, pyramid-like frame, usually decorated with glass balls, tinsel and a candle on top, was a symbol of the birth of Christ as the Light of the World. Changing the tree’s apples to tinsel balls and biscuits and combining this new tree with the light placed on top, the Germans created the tree that many of us know today. I understand that a modern Tannenbaum are traditionally decorated in secret with lights, tinsel and ornaments by parents and then lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with sweets, nuts and gifts under its branches. I’ve learned that down in Guatemala the Christmas tree has joined the “Nacimiento” (Nativity scene) as a popular ornament, it is thought because of the large German population there. Gifts are left under the tree on Christmas morning for the children but for some reason parents and adults do not exchange gifts until New Year’s Day. Here in Britain, the Norway spruce is the traditional species used to decorate homes. This was in fact a native species in the British Isles before the last Ice Age and was reintroduced there before the 1500s, but since December 1947 a Christmas tree has been an annual gift to the people of Britain from Norway as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War. The first tree was cut down by Mons Urangsvåg in 1942 during a raid on the Norwegian island called Hisøy, which is located on the west coast between Bergen and Haugesund. After it was cut down, the tree was then transported to England where the Norwegian King was in exile, and given to him as a gift. It is possible to visit the island of Hisøy but only by boat, and from the old tree stump a new tree has since grown. The Christmas tree has been a gift to the people of Britain by Norway every year since then and has provided a central focus for the Trafalgar Square traditional carol-singing programme which is performed by different groups raising money for voluntary or charitable organisations. It is prominently displayed from the beginning of December until 6 January the following year, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, when it is taken down for recycling. The tree is chipped and composted, to make mulch. It is typically a fifty to sixty-year-old Norway spruce, generally over twenty metres tall and is cut in Norway some time in November during a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador to Norway, the Mayor of Oslo and the Lord Mayor of Westminster. After the tree is cut, it is shipped to the UK and at one time it was brought over to Felixstowe free of charge by a cargo ship of the Fred Olsen Line. Then from around 2007 it was brought into Immingham by the DFDS Tor Line, but since 2018 it has been the responsibility of Radius Group to transport, guard and erect the tree in Trafalgar Square. The tree is decorated in a traditional Norwegian style and adorned with 500 white lights and in 2008 the tree began using low-wattage halogen bulbs which used just 3.5kW of power.

Different countries have slightly different traditions when it comes to Christmas trees. In Ireland, they are bought at any time in December and decorated with coloured lights, tinsel, and baubles. Some people favour the angel on top of the tree, others the star. The house is decorated with garlands, candles, holly, and ivy whilst wreaths and mistletoe are hung on the door. In Italy, the presepio (manger or crib) represents in miniature the Holy Family in the stable and is the centre of Christmas for families. Guests kneel before it and musicians sing before it. The presepio figures are usually hand-carved and very detailed in features and dress. The scene is often set out in the shape of a triangle. It provides the base of a pyramid-like structure called the ceppo, this being a wooden frame arranged to make a pyramid several feet high. Several tiers of thin shelves are then supported by this frame. It is entirely decorated with coloured paper, gilt pine cones, and miniature coloured pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides and a star or small doll is hung at the apex of the triangular sides, whilst the shelves above the manger scene have small gifts of fruit, sweets and presents. It has been said that the ceppo is done in an old Tree of Light tradition which became the Christmas tree in other countries. Some houses even have a ceppo for each child in the family. In Japan, for most of the Japanese who celebrate Christmas it’s purely a secular holiday devoted to the love of their children. Christmas trees are decorated with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold paper fans and lanterns, and wind chimes. Miniature candles are also put among the tree branches and one of the most popular ornaments is the origami swan. Japanese children have exchanged thousands of folded paper “birds of peace” with young people all over the world as a pledge that war must not happen again. Across in Mexico, the principal holiday adornment is el Nacimiento, or Nativity scene. However, a decorated Christmas tree may be incorporated in the Nacimiento or set up elsewhere in the home. As purchase of a natural pine represents a luxury commodity to most Mexican families, the typical arbolito (little tree) is often an artificial one, a bare branch cut from a copal tree (Bursera microphylla) or some type of shrub collected from the countryside. Up in Norway itself, nowadays Norwegians often take a trip to the woods to select a Christmas tree, a trip that their grandfathers probably did not make. The Christmas tree was not introduced into Norway from Germany until the latter half of the 19th century and to the country districts it came even later. Therefore when Christmas Eve arrives, there is the decorating of the tree, usually done by the parents behind the closed doors of the living room, while the children wait with excitement outside. There is a Norwegian ritual known as “circling the Christmas tree” which follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and then walk around it singing carols. After that, gifts are distributed. Across in the Philippines, fresh pine trees are too expensive for many Filipinos so handmade trees in an array of colours and sizes are often used. Star lanterns appear everywhere in December. They are made from bamboo sticks, covered with brightly coloured rice paper or cellophane, and usually feature a tassel on each point. There is usually one in every window, each representing the Star of Bethlehem. But it seems that over in Saudi Arabia the Europeans, Americans, Indians, Filipinos, as well as other Christians living there have to celebrate Christmas privately in their homes. Christmas lights are generally not tolerated and as a result most families place their Christmas trees somewhere rather inconspicuous. However, Christmas is a summer holiday in South Africa as whilst Christmas trees are not common there, windows are often draped with sparkling cotton wool and tinsel. In Spain, a popular Christmas custom is Catalonia, a lucky strike game where a tree trunk is filled with goodies and children hit at the trunk trying to knock out the hazel nuts, almonds, toffee, and other treats. Up in Sweden, most people buy Christmas trees well before Christmas Eve, but it’s not common to take the tree inside and decorate it until just a few days before. Evergreen trees are decorated with stars, sunbursts, and snowflakes made from straw. Other decorations include colourful wooden animals and straw centrepieces. I found it fascinating though to learn that in the Ukraine, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th by Catholics and on January 7th by Orthodox Christians, yet it is the most popular holiday there. So as a result, during the whole of their Christmas season which of course includes New Year’s Day, people decorate fir trees and have parties.

I have found even more fascinating facts about this festive time.

  • In the U.S.A, the Rockefeller Center tree is located at Rockefeller Center, west of Fifth Avenue from 47th through 51st Streets in New York City and dates back to the Depression era.
  • The first tree at Rockefeller Center was placed in 1931 and was a small unadorned tree placed by construction workers at the centre of the construction site. Two years later, another tree was placed there, this time with lights.
  • The tallest tree displayed at Rockefeller Center arrived in 1948 and was a Norway Spruce that measured 100 feet tall and hailed from Killingworth, Connecticut.
  • Between 1887-1933 a fishing schooner called the Christmas Ship would tie up at the Clark Street bridge and sell spruce trees from Michigan to the people of Chicago.
  • In 1912, the first community Christmas tree in the United States was erected in New York City.
  • In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn.
  • In 1963, the National Christmas Tree was not lit until December 22nd because of a national 30-day period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy.
  • Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has given a Christmas tree to the President and first family.
  • In 1979, their National Christmas Tree was not lit except for the top ornament in honour of the American hostages in Iran.
  • Christmas trees generally take six to eight years to mature.
  • The tallest living Christmas tree is believed to be the 122-foot, 91-year-old Douglas fir in the town of Woodinville, Washington.
  • Most Christmas trees are cut weeks before they get to a retail outlet.
  • In the past, other types of trees such as cherry and hawthorns were used as Christmas trees.
  • It is said that Thomas Edison’s assistants came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees.
  • Teddy Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House for environmental reasons.
  • At one time, tinsel was banned because it contained lead. Now it is made of plastic.
  • In the first week, a tree in your home will consume as much as a quart of water per day.
  • You should never burn your Christmas tree in the fireplace, as it can contribute to a build-up of creosote.

This week…
I watched a video recently showing where a cat had somehow managed to get its head stuck inside a tin can and could not get out. A man freed the cat, but found it was not wearing a collar so was saying to people nearby how he thought the cat was probably wild. My immediate thought was “wild – I expect it was absolutely furious!”

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