Tag Archives: ornaments

The Things We Do to Trees

My festooned tree with new & old.

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.

Same tree but without flash.

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.

Happy Holidays to everyone and may you have joy and celebration in all your traditions.

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Holiday Memories: The Good Ones

I grew up in a fairly dysfunctional family. Every Christmas usually involved one huge fight between my mother and father and my mother carting us off to a movie or for Chinese food or to a friend’s. When my father was gone, the fights still continued but they were transferred to us. My mother usually threatened to not get a Christmas tree or something else.

Every year my mother put us to polishing the silver and brass, stripping the linoleum floors (all of them) with ammonia and wax and polishing them. The floor waxing was a little draconian but I didn’t mind the polishing of rows on rows of collector spoons, the silver dinnerware only used at Christmas, New Years and Thanksgiving, and the myriad other metal items. My younger brother devised a form of electrolysis to dip the things in and clean them; any thing to get out of the work.

But those are not the good memories. We always baked: sugar cookies, shortbread cookies, butter tarts, fruitcake and sundry other types. My mother had this giant ceramic crock, about 18 inches high in which she would pour the molasses, sugar, dried chopped fruit and cherries in dayglow, not made by nature, colors, the currents and almonds and whatever else goes into the fruitcake. We would stir with long wooden spoons as this was far too much for any set of beaters.

There were three graduated square pans and three round with the punch-out bottoms. In would go the brown and sweet batter (yummier that way than cooked). Once they were baked my mother would wrap them in cotton tea towels soaked in brandy, then she’d sprinkle them with more brandy, put in a slice of apple, wrap them in wax paper and store them in the crock. There was enough for a year or more. I never cared for fruit cake because I don’t like dessicated fruit.

The best part was the tree. It was usually 10-12 feet tall and went right to the roof. We had a little plastic angel (about 8″) with a light inside of her. Her best pale feature was the silken white angel hair, probably made from fiberglass for all I know but it was real. On would go the angel and the lights first, carefully strung by my older brother (or father at one point) with the bubble light set in the right spots after, and the weird little round snowball lights.

Then would come the placing of the balls, the many balls and ornaments–two large boxes about three feet high and 18 square inches wide, stacked to the top with balls. Even as a child some of those ornaments were venerable and I wasn’t allowed to place them until I grew a bit older. There was the silver smoking pipe and the violin, the trumpets and other horns that you could blow into and they’d honk…for the first while anyways, until the cheap noisemaker bust.

There were the glass birds, peacocks and swans and others with long fake, stiff fiberglass tails, which clipped on the branches. There were the balls with their indented crinkled interiors that gathered light and threw it back throughout the tree. These were often round or stretched like double-ended teardrops. There were a few hand painted balls. There were the teakettles and coffee pots, the old style hurricane lamps that always had a place nearer the top of the tree because of their delicate and venerated stature.

Then there was my ball. As long as I remembered it, it already had a hole in it, in one of those indentations. Some times my siblings would tease me that it had broken because I insisted on putting it in its special place every year. It was unique in shape and color. The top was like a ball with two (maybe three) indentations. It may have had a slim stemlike neck that was very short and then a slight dome that slid into a slow growing bell shape. The bottom gently curved the other way (convex) and joined up with a little nub hanging down. I believe the bottom was  silvery pink matching the painted flower on the side. The rest was a deep teal (I loved turquoise even then). In retrospect it resembled a glass bell about six inches long.

I loved that ball. It summed up in ways I can’t really describe, all the good things of Christmas; my family being together and happy (when they weren’t squabbling), gift giving, cooking and decorating the tree, and possibly having a few people over. The last parts to trimming that tree were adding the glass garlands; balls and bells, and the tinsel. We draped tinsel carefully over every single branch so that it shimmered and danced. We stopped putting it on the bottom branches because the cats kept eating it and it wasn’t a pretty sight at the other end. The lights bubbled, a few blinked but most shone a steady blue, red, yellow and green, carefully arranged so that the colors didn’t clump.

My mother pretty much stopped with a tree as the family went its own way, not always amiably, and she gave me many of the ornaments that she still had. One year, when I was out visiting I asked her, “Hey, where’s my ball?” I hadn’t asked in years or seen it but she knew exactly which one it was. She said, “Oh, it broke years ago.”

I was devastated. It was like that fragile glass had held all the good aspects of love, and Christmas and generosity. Like those emotions, like our relationships, it was something to be cherished, to handle gently, to respect. It was delicate and beautiful. I felt such a hollow and sorrow within me that I hadn’t even realized what it had meant to me.

This year I didn’t put up a tree, but I have several special ornaments and I recently found a ball with as unique a shape, very individual. Perhaps I didn’t do the tree this year because it’s been a tough year and I want the memories going into those ornaments to be good ones. Perhaps it’s a breather and remembering my friend Bear who died last year on Dec. 18th. I’ll have memories of all these things to hold close.

May your Christmas, or Hannukah, or Solstice or Kwanzaa, when they fall, bring you joy, warmth, friendship, love and family. And most of all may they give you good memories to hold close and cherish.

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