Most know traditional decorating ideas for Christmas go waaayyy back, ‘borrowed’ from early pre-Christian holidays in Celtic, Scandinavian and Germanic cultures. Whether to decorate or not has been as controversial as Christmas itself. Just as there have been bans on celebrating Christmas, such as in 1647 when under Puritan Oliver Cromwell there were punishments for such celebrations in England (the political climate changed, the King restored, and so was Christmas), there are now bans on Christmas decorations in many schools and public places. There are Christian churches that celebrate sans decorations. On the other hand, there are Jewish families that always have Christmas trees, some jokingly calling it their Hanukkah tree.
My theory is that in the short, often dark days and long dark nights of winter, people, past and present, restricted from being outside, needed something to ‘change the scenery’ of their housebound lives, a reason to add color and light. Ancient yule time festivities brought gaiety and light to the dark mid-winter. Jesus came along and what better way to celebrate a birthday than with lights and decorations! Okay, the earliest record of celebrating his birthday in December is from the middle of the second century, when Christians were still a persecuted minority, so maybe they didn’t decorate too much.
(note: As for those “modern” Christmas lights that light up dark nights, in 1895 Ralph E Morris of the New England telephone company took tiny strings of lights made for telephone switchboards, put them on his tree to replace the not-so-safe candles, and the rest is history!)
Christmas decorating and decorations in homes is very personal. Look at someone’s tree and you see ornaments full of family tradition and stories. Our trees are so familiar to ourselves, but to an ‘outsider’ it’s like peering into a private room in the house! I do not have children, yet like many families, I have child-made Christmas decorations from nieces. Everyone has ornaments and decorations given as gifts, or bought on a special day, or a vintage find, or maybe an after-Christmas deal on a box of pretty glass balls. Most trees are a miscellaneous collection of family history. Yes, there are those who carefully arrange and coordinated “designer” trees, with color themes and ornament “collections”, those trees too give insight into the decorator.
The decorating touches people place around their homes, hang on their doors, or put outside often have stories too. If there’s no story, they at least reflect something about the person or family. As traditional and universal some Christmas decorating themes might be – Santas, snowmen, angels, wise men, the nativity, reindeer, bells, etc., individual expression and interpretations of those themes are endless, and new themes often very unique!
When cleaning out my parents house I brought home a few Christmas decorations. Some of the old ones held childhood memories. Though sentimental, I realized those ornaments made from tin can lids, covered with glitter, were really old, no longer attractive and I was never going to use them. I kept only a few items from mom’s decorations.
One year, after we’d all left home, Mom decided she wanted a blue and white tree and went out and bought blue and silver balls and white birds. Sort of a “designer” tree. She used those ornaments exclusively only a year, maybe two. Soon more colorful family ornaments were added back in and most of the blue-tree-theme ornaments were stored away, along with the old glass ball ornaments of our childhood. Her tree eventually became an eclectic collection of little wooden figures and craft ornaments, no glass balls.
Closest I came to a “theme” tree was the tiny-teddy-bear tree one year, the santas & snowmen tree, or the all-angel tree, though none of these were without small red, green, silver and gold balls. In a small house, even a “big” tree is relatively small and easy to “themeize”.
My love of decorating for Christmas began to wane not long after Mike and I married. Besides decorating at home, I decorated the Quilcene Community Center for 9 years, and later the Port Townsend Visitor Center for 7 years, plus various parties for seniors, volunteers, etc. I was decorated out! Marrying at 43, Mike had never celebrated Christmas as an adult, never had a tree in his “shed-boy” cabin, and he enjoyed the wonder of all my little ornaments. I kept at it quite a few years, but over the past decade, as my health and energy has been more challenged, half my ornaments have gone to garage sales and Good Will. A pattern set in where every year I’d announce in November I did not want to “do” Christmas and if I did, it would be minimal. In early December I’d put a few boughs in a vase, set out some angels, a few Swedish gnomes and santas, gifts from my friends in Sweden, hang lights around the window, make a swag, get out the music (we both love Christmas music) and say, “that’s it.”
Then a week later I’d go in the attic, (or the years I couldn’t due to recovering from some surgery or broken bone, I’d ask Mike to go in the attic, it’s the crawl in type) to find the box of nativity sets. I’d see favorite little snow angel ornaments, or tree shaped candles, or the Lenox Christmas bowl, or we’d want more lights for dark NW evenings. Out would come boxes and suddenly there’d be Christmas everywhere! One year, after swearing we’d have no tree, I bought a previously cut, but rejected, small noble fir at a local already-closed-for-the-season u-cut tree farm on Christmas Eve and decorated it by the time Mike came home from work. For several years I decorated a potted tree on the porch with outdoor ornaments, within view of the living room. Then came the table top artificial trees (one I’d bought for mom) something I, Nature girl, NEVER thought I’d do, but a great show case, that takes up little room, for favorite tiny ornaments. Then after Christmas, every year, I’d say, as I gathered, boxed up, and put away all the stuff I’d dragged out – I’m NOT doing this again.
So here we are – first week of December. I made my November announcement. Yesterday I put boughs in a vase (they’ll dry before Christmas and need replacing – maybe with a little artificial tree?), set out a few bits of Christmas stored in my closet, played Christmas music off my iPad (forget the box of CDs, tapes, and old 33 rpm albums). Crippled up with a painful foot (re-injured this week by a #@#* doctor), I can’t walk and can’t possibly go up to the attic. This may be the year I succeed at minimalist Christmas decorating. But there ARE those little snowman angels, the tiny nativity set and I’ve got three weeks to go.
(P.S. Mike read this and helpfully headed to the attic! I complained as he pulled out boxes, but with great reservation, took only a few more items and sent the rest back to the attic!)
See photo below for a tree from the late 1930s. my dad’s family (he’s in the middle) and a very tinseled tree (tinsel, originally made of silver in Germany, was eventually made of lead until the 1970s when it was realized lead was toxic. Yikes!)
My favorite book of Christmas trivia, used in writing this:
The Christmas Almanack, Gerard and Patricia Del Re, 1979. (Yes, that’s how they spell almanac)
other December and holiday posts: