We have many Christmas traditions and the decorating of the Yule or solstice tree goes back a long ways. There are tree traditions in other cultures that involve adding wishes or charms or paper decorations but I’m going to talk about the Christmas tree tradition. It did begin long ago in Estonia and Germany, though the first recorded instance that can be documented was from the 1500s. But there is reference to other tree and winter solstice/Christmas activities going back farther. Of course the other end of the yearly tree celebration still takes place on May Day or Beltane and involves the May pole, where people dance around the tree, weaving it with ribbons.
In previous centuries trees were decorated with apples, figs, nuts, dates and other dried fruits. Candles were put in the trees to signify the return of the sun after the winter solstice and whether Christian or not there is a festival of light tradition in almost every culture. Earlier times and Victorian era trees may have seen strings of popcorn and cranberries (still popular with some) and chains made of paper. Sometimes these trees were done outside and any bounty of fruit and nuts would have been appreciated by the wildlife. Queen Victoria, from her German heritage, popularized the tree decorating, which then spread to Canada and the US.
And so, in Canada it was already a well-entrenched tradition by the time I came along. The house we lived in had a slanted ceiling and at its apex it was probably twelve feet high. My mother always bought a tree that just fit under that roof. I’m not sure of the true height but it had to be between 10-12 feet and a ladder was needed to decorate the tree. Besides department stores and civic centers I don’t even know if you can get a tree that big these days.
Once the giant tree was erected in its cast iron stand, the lights were strung on with care, where the bulbs would be switched about so there was no cluster of red, yellow, blue or green. The special lights–the bubble lights and the weird round snow globes or other odd colored lights–were distributed about the branches. These lights weren’t the little lights we all use today but those massive ones, only slightly smaller than the outdoor version and on sturdy cords. I once had candles to put on my tree but I stopped after a few years because it was too difficult to keep the holders upright and not cause a house fire.
Decorating the tree was a full family affair and often took two days. My mother had two boxes that were three feet high and two feet square full of decorations. There were the balls that actually had an accidental hole (where they get brittle over time and just a bit too much pressure will pop a hole through) but they were still beautiful. I’ve talked in another post about the vintage Christmas ornaments. The rarer ones: coffeepots, teapots, lamps, umbrellas, horns, birds and bells would go nearer the top. The very unusual and one of a kind balls were also placed about the tree. When I was little I had my ball and I had to put it on the tree. My siblings would often tease me that it was gone. That ball lasted forever, even into my adulthood and when I asked my mother where it was one year, she said, oh it broke years ago. I was heartbroken because that ball was the symbol of the good things in childhood for me. It was unique, turquoise and pink and silver, part bell shape and even had a little hole in it.
Once all the balls were placed, sometimes on every single branch, we festooned the tree with glass bead garlands and tinsel. I had to meticulously drape a piece of tinsel or maybe two on every branch. My younger brother got into tossing handfuls at the tree, which offended my young and anal sensibilities. The tinsel was accompanied by little twists of metal, icicles that were also hung. But the tinsel itself was also a bane. We started to not hang it on the lower branches since our cat, who loved to chew the spider plant and eat grass from time to time, found the tinsel a special grassy treat.
There was nothing worse than tinsel bum, when the cat went to poop and had a long brown dingle berry hanging on a thread of tinsel from his ass. His solution was to drag his bum throughout the house, over the carpet, leaving brown streaks in an attempt to dislodge the annoyance. We had to run after him, with wads of toilet paper, and try to very very gently remove the offending decoration from the cat. Tinsel was a pain to decorate with, mostly plastic, and non biodegradable, and disgusting when the cat got it. We did gather it up every year but a fair amount went out with the tree or was vacuumed up.
These days, I wouldn’t put tinsel on if I could find it. I use a winged thing theme, whether birds, angels, fairies, flying frogs or whatever, plus red apples and eclectically shaped balls. I use one color of light but I do tend to put on lots of decorations. This year my tree was a little more Charlie Brown than usual and I decided to forego the bead garlands and couldn’t fit the tree topper on. Still, if nothing else, I enjoy having a tree through the winter season. It symbolizes a more innocent time, the return of light and nature in the dark times, and a joyous comfort in the whimsical decorations. To me, it’s one of the best parts of Christmas.