I love, love, love to decorate for Christmas. I enjoy it and look forward to it every year. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it makes me happy. And yes, I decorate for Christmas before Thanksgiving (the U.S. Thanksgiving, anyway, I do not decorate before Canadian Thanksgiving). If any of that bothers you, just don’t come over to my house during this time of the year. I’m not sorry and I won’t stop.
I realize that for many Christmas, a holiday that many people in Western society treat as a holiday of extravagance, can be difficult. And I don’t mean to be insensitive to that. It’s not about the money spent to me. I love digging through old boxes of ornaments each year and remembering where they came from, who made them (even the not-so-pretty ones), and why we have them. I like making small crafts with my kids to display around the house. One of the traditions I have with my boys is to help each other build a Christmas tree out of Lego to put in their room each year.
We don’t have an intricate Christmas Village display or a lot of moving parts, and we still shy away from anything particularly delicate, expensive, or irreplaceable (my kids are young and they play rough). But what we do have, I love. And I wait eagerly every year for Halloween to end so I can begin prepping for Christmas. Though, I do usually wait until the second week of November only because we have several family birthdays to celebrate first. My ADHD brain can only handle one event prep at a time.
But why do we decorate the way we do for Christmas? Why a large tree? Why all the lights? The answer is mostly Germany, but I’ll get into that in a minute. Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know About Christmas Decorations.
- Being that the birth of Jesus (yes, I am a Christian) has been argued to be in March, April, September, and several other months based on different points of reference, the old rumor that Christmas is celebrated in December to make it easier for Roman pagan converts to accept it is true. Why Romans? Because Christmas was not actually celebrated until about 300 years after the death of Jesus. It was during the final years of the reign of Emperor Constantine, who famously converted to Christianity himself. Romans had long celebrated the Winter Solstice as a time when Saturn (Roman God of Agriculture) would begin to return to full strength and bring the warmth and growth of spring with him. Evergreen boughs and branches were often used for Saturnalia decorations and transitioned somewhat easily into Christmas decor.
- Boughs and branches are great, but how did we get around to having a whole tree indoors? Remember when I said the answer was mostly Germany? This is where that begins. Sometime in the 1500-1600s, Germans began melding the formerly Pagan use of evergreens with the blossoming (no pun intended) Christian tradition of the “Tree of Light”. The Tree of Light is not an actual tree. It was more of a wooden pyramid that stood over an empty manger and held a candle on top. They began to decorate it with branches, pine cones, nuts, etc. And while there are still places where a wooden “Tree of Light” is more common than an actual tree, eventually the Germans moved on to just bringing an entire tree into the house. Though it should be noted that since the beginning of the tradition, it was more common to see trees about four feet in height, whereas once the tradition made its way to America it immediately became a floor-to-ceiling, bigger is better kind of thing.
- Martin Luther is credited with putting lights on the tree. The legend has it that while walking home one winter night the stars shining through the evergreen branches struck him as so beautiful and ethereal, he wanted to take the vision home to his family. He placed candles on their “artificial tree” (wooden pyramid decorated with evergreen boughs and branches) and voila the tradition of lighting the tree was born. I have no idea if this is in any way true, but several sources mention it so I’m rolling with it.
- German immigrants brought the tradition of a Christmas Tree with them to the United States. Actually, to be more accurate, they began bringing the tradition to the “New World” that was still divvied up among Western Europe despite having a thriving and sophisticated network of Native civilizations. But I digress. The best I can find (read: It’s okay to correct me if I am wrong here), most Indigenous tribes basically looked at the Christmas tree as one more weird thing White people did. And let’s be real, it really would have been just a drop in the bucket at that point. English settlers took great offense in the early days though. They decried the Christmas tree as being a “mockery” of the “sacred event”. They also thought Christmas Carols, any other kind of decoration, or “frivolity” was offensive. Basically, the English were sticks in the mud. It took a while, but by the mid 1700s, the Christmas tree began to take a foothold in the British colonies, though still mostly among German families.
- Enter Queen Victoria. The colonies are now their own country, it’s the mid 1800s and Queen Victoria (who was from a German line of English monarchs herself) and her German born husband are painted celebrating with their young children around a Christmas tree in the palace. Whatever Victoria did at this point in time immediately became fashionable, not only in England but throughout Western Europe. It also became so among the wealthy elite along the East Coast of the United States who desperately wanted to seem as trendy as their English counterparts. Suddenly, the Christmas tree and its growing list of appropriate decorations was not only something for poor or recent immigrant families, but also for those looking to keep up with the Saxe-Coburg-Gothes. What a mouthful. Methinks the change to “Windsor” wasn’t just a PR move during the First World War, but an opportunity to simply the House name. But again, I digress.
- By the end of the 1800s, Woolworth’s Department Store was selling about $25 million worth of German style Christmas tree “baubles” such as blown glass balls in a variety of colors. Other stores followed suit to try to get a piece of the burgeoning market. Mass production and a flood of supply suddenly made commercial Christmas decorations affordable to those outside the upper class. Christmas tree decorations as a business venture spread like wildfire (again, no pun intended). Today, there are Christmas Tree Farms in every U.S. State including Hawaii. I live in Mississippi and there are several within a half hour drive from my house.
- In the 1880s, the VP from the Edison Electric Light Company (started by Thomas Edison and now known simply as General Electric or GE) had the grand idea to design a special string of bulbs encased in glass to string around his Christmas Tree. He used Red, White, and Blue glass and used the lights to replace the “fire prone” candles that people still used to decorate the tree. He placed the tree in front of his parlor window. The window faced the street in his trendy, expensive New York neighborhood and passersby talked so much about it seemed to glow through the street that newspapers across the nation picked up the story and photographs circulated with the write ups. Soon anybody who could afford them (and had access to electricity) wanted electric lights on their tree. In 1895 then President Grover Cleveland would put up the first lit Christmas tree in the White House (the first tree without electric lights was brought in by Franklin Pierce before the Civil War).
- In 1923 then President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. During the Great Depression, construction workers building what would eventually be Rockefeller Center put up a small, plain Christmas tree to boost morale at the work site. In 1933, just two years after the workers put up the first tree, the publicist for Rockefeller decided it should be an annual event, complete with electric lights and fancy decorations. The lighting of the Rockefeller tree began to broadcast on NBC in the 1950s and remains a holiday tradition in the US today. This year’s Rockefeller tree will be brought in from Maryland, is the usual Norway Spruce, and is 79 feet tall. It will be lit (and broadcast) on December 1st. The National Christmas Tree Lighting in D.C. will not have a live audience and music show this year due to COVID concerns. However, the tree will still go up. This year’s tree hails from Six Rivers National Park in California.
- With all these beautiful spruces, firs, etc going up to great fanfare you might be wondering how and why modern artificial trees became prevalent. The answer is Boomers. No, really. After WWII suburbs were on the rise, Christmas decorations were somewhat affordable, and parents who grew up in the Great Depression were eager to share seemingly lavish Christmas traditions with their young children. However, now they more and more people were living in towns or even apartments without quick and easy (or cheap) access to trees to cut down for such a thing, the market for artificial, easily transported, trees opened up. They became so common and popular that for a time artificial trees were considered far more trendy than real ones. Especially when they became available in a variety of colors. My grandmother, who indeed grew up in the Depression and had Boomer children, loved her artificial tree. The rest of us not so much, but we loved her and so we helped her get it out of the attic and put it up each year without fail, while all having a real tree in our own homes. After her passing, the memory of that tree is something that makes us all smile. I now have an artificial tree so I can put it up so early. Thankfully, mine is at least meant to look natural, something my grandmother’s color changing tree did not even attempt.
- It was also during the childhood of Boomers that tinsel flooded the market. But about the time Gen Xers were joining their Boomer parents in decorating the family tree, tinsel was temporarily outlawed. Back then it was made of lead. Not that it was the first toxic decoration though. Ladies’ magazines had been suggesting ways to decorate for Christmas that included toxic substances since the late 1800s. Luckily, they all fell out of favor pretty quickly (turns out asthma attacks don’t exactly scream Christmas Spirit). Tinsel eventually re-entered the market as a plastic made item, for better or for worse.
That was a quick 10 things, and there is so much I didn’t cover! I didn’t even make it to poinsettias! Hmm. Maybe I should continue this discussion next month.
What holidays do your characters celebrate? Do they decorate? Where do those traditions come from and what do they represent? Are they toxic? Beautiful? Odd? We have some strange ways of celebrating different holidays, so having something that your characters celebrate makes them feel more relatable, more real.
In the real world, what holiday (not just Christmas) tradition represents this time of year to you and your family? My knowledge of anything related to Diwali is practically non-existent, Kwanzaa is not much better. I am very familiar with Hanukkah because I celebrated it with my Jewish friends growing up (we went to their house for one of the nights of Hanukkah and they came to our house on Christmas Eve), but I’d love to know how different people celebrate!