Having a Christmas tree is not as traditional as you think it is
What's more traditional than a Christmas tree?
Just about everything.
Decorated trees were, in fact, the last big Christmas custom to become universal.
Bob Cratchit didn't have one. There's no mention of a Christmas tree in that parlor visited by St. Nick on "The Night Before Christmas."
It's possible that Clement Clarke Moore, author of the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (1823), never heard of a Christmas tree. As for Charles Dickens, author of "A Christmas Carol" (1843), his first account of a Christmas tree came nearly a decade after he wrote his famous story about Scrooge and the ghosts, and even then he seems to have regarded it as a wonderful novelty:
"I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree," he wrote in 1850. "It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects."
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Yule logs, puddings, stockings, wreaths, Christmas carols, Santa Claus, even Ebenezer Scrooge had become well established before the average family started putting a decorated tree in the parlor.
Now, of course, it's the centerpiece of the celebration.
"If the pumpkin is the mascot of the harvest, truly the Christmas tree is the hero of the holiday season," says Boonton resident Valerie Parr Hill, co-author of "Decorating for the Holidays."
"It's what we put in the center of our bay window and light it up so all the neighbors can see," Hill says.
Something new for Christmas
Christmas trees were not new in 1850, when Dickens wrote his lively account. But they were new to much of the English-speaking world.
People, to be sure, had always brought greens into the house in winter. That's an old pagan custom. The ancient Romans did it. So did the Druids. For them, it symbolized the promise — at the coldest, darkest time of the year — of new life in the spring. For Christians, this idea came to be associated with the Resurrection.
Since the middle ages, Europeans had been decking the halls with boughs of holly, and kissing under the mistletoe. In many Eastern European countries, fir trees were hung upside down, from the rafters. The triangular shape of the fir — full at the bottom, pointed at the top — was thought to be a symbol of the Trinity.
But it was in Germany, as Dickens says, that the Christmas tree as we know it seems to have evolved. Martin Luther himself was supposed to have decorated evergreen trees with lighted candles.
The big turning point for the Christmas tree was 1848. That was the year "The Illustrated London News," in its December issue, pictured a strange new custom. On a tabletop stood a decorated, candle-lit tree. Around it, a family was gathered.
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Only it wasn't just any family. It was Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, who had brought the Christmas tree over to England from his native Germany when they married in 1840. The picture created a sensation. Soon all the most fashionable people had to have a Christmas tree in their home.
That same illustration gave Christmas trees a big boost in America. "Godey's Lady's Book," the "Ladies' Home Journal" of its day, reprinted the engraving in its Christmas, 1850 issue — only without the queen's tiara and Albert's mustache. What Americans saw was an ordinary mother and father celebrating with their family. They liked what they saw. And an American tradition was born.
"It has replaced everything else: plum pudding, yule logs, caroling," Hill says. "Those seem to be more things of the past. Every year the Christmas tree gets bigger and bigger."
The "traditional" tree, today, is a floor-to-ceiling fir or spruce, with shiny colored balls, lights, and a star on top. But in the early days, there was no real consensus about what a Christmas tree should look like.
Tabletop trees were common. Sparse, rather than full, branches were typical. Ornaments varied widely: essentially whatever people made for themselves, or had lying around. It wasn't until F.W. Woolworth began selling mass-produced glass ornaments in 1880 that Christmas trees began to take on their modern look.
In case of fire...
One feature was common to most Christmas trees in the 19th century: Danger.
Trees were decorated with lit candles. And candles meant fire.
The New York Times, in 1885, carried a vivid account of a Christmas tree disaster in a Chicago hospital. "In less than half a minute the tree was a roaring, howling sparking mass of fire," The Times wrote. "Under a cloud of stifling, blinding, smoke 600 persons were struggling for air and life. There was a frantic rush up the aisles for the single door at the rear…Children and women were trampled under foot, and men, lost to reason, screamed and shouted like madmen."
Years later, Broadway composer Kurt Weill wrote a song about a willful little girl, "The Saga of Jenny" (1941), that recalled this grim aspect of the holidays:
In 1903, when the first commercially-produced electric Christmas lights came on the market, this problem was on the way to being solved. New technology meant other delights as well: artificial trees, decorator trees, trees with flashing lights and bubble lights and "slim profile" trees that are the latest rage in decor, Hill says.
"It sits in the corner, and doesn't stick out as much," she says.
With their smaller footprint — or trunk-print — slim trees are perfect for another trend that has gained ground in the last decade: the "secondary" tree. Now, in chic homes, it is common to have a large living room tree, and one or more additional trees to accent other rooms during the holidays.
Frequently Hill says, those trees are in single, decorator colors.
"The easiest way to do a secondary tree is to theme it with color," Hill says. "You can theme it any way you wish, but the easiest way is to give it a monochromatic theme. It's an instant wow."
Our favorite trees
Trimmed trees are the classic way to celebrate Christmas. And they, in their turn, have been celebrated by Christmas-lovers.
We eat tree-shaped Christmas cookies, salute the "tannenbaum" in song, create faux-Christmas trees out of the bushes in our front yard. Christmas trees adorn greeting cards, catalogs, advertisements. The cutting down, shipping and unveiling of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is an annual saga.
"The Fir-Tree," the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen fable about a runt of a tree that is cut down for the holidays, may be the first Christmas tree in fiction. There have been plenty since: in books, movies, TV shows, ballets.
Here are some of our favorites:
♦"Nutcracker" tree (1892). This is a Christmas tree that grows to gigantic size, and whisks a young ballerina to a dreamland of dancing sweets and sugar plum fairies. Tchaikovsky's perennial 1892 holiday ballet "The Nutcracker" is set in Germany, where the Christmas tree originated.
♦"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" tree (1943). The neighborhood's tough Christmas tree salesman chucks whole trees at the poorer kids. The ones who catch them get to keep them. The ones that don't end up bruised or worse. "They got to get used to it," says the tree man to himself. "They got to learn to give and take punishment." Betty Smith's 1943 bestseller didn't sugar-coat its portrait of hardscrabble Brooklyn in the early 1900s.
♦Charlie Brown tree (1965). This tree, like Charlie Brown, is a loser: a few scrawny branches, bowed over from the weight of a single ornament. Yet it springs back to life with a little love. The idea was inspired by Andersen's "The Fir-Tree," according to Lee Mendelson, producer of the beloved 1965 TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." "I said maybe we ought to do something with a little tree," Mendelson told The Record in 2015. "And [Charles] Schulz said, maybe there could be a tree that's unwanted and picked upon, just like Charlie Brown is picked upon. That he could relate to." Now you can buy "Charlie Brown trees" in novelty stores.
♦"Poseidon Adventure" tree (1972). This is the giant two-story Christmas tree that falls over when your ocean liner is scuttled by a rogue wave, and which you then climb to safety. Or try to, if you're Shelley Winters. "Mrs. Peter Pan I'm not," moans poor Shelley, queen of this 1972 disaster epic.
♦"A Christmas Story" Christmas tree (1983). Haggling, at the Christmas tree lot, is also a holiday tradition. "This isn't one of those trees where all the needles falls off, is it?" asks mother (Melinda Dillon) in Jean Shepherd's holiday perennial about growing up in 1940s Indiana. "No, that's them balsams," says the glib tree salesman (Leslie Carlson). "You know, Zudock just bought one of those brand-new green plastic trees," says the Old Man (Darren McGavin), craftily. The salesman is alarmed. "I'll throw in some rope and tie it to your car for you," he says. "You got a deal," says the Old Man.
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