Thursday, December 1, 2011

Trimming the Tree

Today is the first day of December, and in celebration of the holiday season, my roommate and I are planning to "deck the halls"--or our apartment--with a bunch of Christmas decorations, including the staple of the season: The Christmas Tree.

Trimming the tree has been a cherished tradition in our culture for hundreds of years, but the history of this act dates back decades before our country even existed. There are numerous accounts of how the Christmas tree tradition came to be, but most historians can agree that it goes back to the early Romans. In the Northern hemisphere, the longest night of the year--also known as the winter solstice--occurs around December 21. Romans celebrated this time with a feast called the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Since the solstice meant that farms and orchards would be green again soon, the Romans decorated their homes with evergreen boughs. They would exchange gifts, giving coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one's journey through life.

Years later, Germans and Scandinavians put evergreen trees in their homes or just outside their doors to represent their hope for the upcoming spring. This tradition helped us evolve our current practices with trees indoors and wreaths hung in entryways. Germany is largely credited with launching the Christmas tree tradition as we know it. It is widely believed that Martin Luther was the first to actually decorate a tree with lighted candles to recapture the scene he witnessed of stars twinkling through the branches of the evergreens.

In the United States, the tree most likely came from Hessian troops during the American Revolution, or with German immigrants in Pennsylvania. One of the first accounts of a tree in the U.S. was in the 1830s, when settlers in Pennsylvania displayed them in their hopes. However, many Americans saw the trees as pagan symbols and they were not accepted at first. It was only after an image was printed of Queen Victoria and her prince, Albert, standing with their children around a Christmas tree that it suddenly became fashionable.

 Christmas ornaments began arriving in America in the 1890s, when tree decorating was growing rapidly in popularity. True to form, Americans took to putting up massive trees that reached from floor to ceiling, while the Europeans continued to use small trees about four feet high. (But we always like things bigger here.) Many people made their own homemade ornaments using wood and cloth, while others used apples, nuts and marzipan cookies. Popcorn came into use after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries.

Today, our ornaments and decorations are much more elaborate, which is to be expected. And we have all taken on our own Christmas decorating traditions. And just as every family is different, so is every country. It is interesting to hear about what other cultures do to celebrate Christmas, and how they trim their trees.

Christmas trees around the world. Credit: family-christmas-traditions.com
In the Phillipines, much of the population is too poor to afford Christmas trees, so they must rely on their own creativity to make a tree. They will often use bamboo, branches or other materials to build an artistic rendition of the typical evergreen. They will then decorate them with star lanterns and other handmade ornaments. In Liberia, the Christmas tree is an oil palm tree that they decoate with bells. In the northern part of Brazil, where pine trees are rare, most will buy artificial trees in a variety of colors. In the south, where there are millions of trees, people will decorate them with puffs of cotton to imitate snow. The Japanese do not really celebrate Christmas, but those who do decorate their trees with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold fans, lanterns and tiny candles. Since Christmas falls during the summer in South Africa, many do not have trees, but they will decorate their windows with sparkling cotton, wool and tinsel. The same is true in Australia, and many will celebrate on the beach or with a backyard barbecue. Mnay Aussies will decorate Christmas bushes, native plants with red-flowered leaves.

While my family has adopted many Italian traditions, we have yet to embrace the ceppo, a triangular shelf that is set up in the room. On the lower shelf sits the nativity, the upper shelves are decorated with small gifts, fruits, and candies. Candles can be affixed to the sides and a star is placed on top. This is called the "tree of lights." Maybe I can convince my parents to do it this year, though after 25 years of doing the exact same thing, I think we all might be reluctant to introduce something new.

But I am excited to trim my tree tonight, and perhaps start some of my own traditions.

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