One aspect of the American festive season which still strikes me as different even as I approach my twelfth Christmas living in Coastal Georgia is just how early people put up their Christmas trees and how quickly they take them down after December 25 has passed!
As soon as the turkey has been eaten at Thanksgiving, it seems to me that the whole USA puts up their Christmas tree. By the time I am ready to do it, around the 2nd week of December, there are slim pickings left at the tree lot! In England, where of course nobody celebrates Thanksgiving, people don’t usually put up their tree until December is well underway. Then on December 26, Americans seem keen to start taking down the decorations. The day after Christmas is a public holiday in the UK known as ‘Boxing Day’, which is a continuation of everything festive. Back in the land of my birth, more people follow the tradition of celebrating Christmas (and leaving their decorated tree up) through January 6 – which is called ‘twelfth night’. According to Christian tradition, this date marks the day the three kings arrived in Bethlehem and signals the end of the Christmas celebrations.
So how did the tradition of bringing a fir tree into our homes begin? Festooning home and hearth with greenery goes back thousands of years to pagan winter festivals when such decorations symbolized life and growth in the depths of winter. A popular British Christmas decoration beginning in the Middle Ages was the ‘kissing bough’, a garland of evergreen plants woven around hoops of willow and often hung with apples and mistletoe. Of course, this is where the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began.
The tradition of indoor trees is thought to have originated in Germany as early as the 12th century when people hung Fir Trees upside down marking the holiday season. In the early 16th century Martin Luther, a key figure in church reformation and establishment of the Lutheran church, is credited with decorating the first Christmas tree with candles. It is said he did this to show his children how stars twinkled through the dark night. About that same time, Germany was the first country to open Christmas markets where gifts, wreaths, trees and food were sold. The popular Christmas carol “O Christmas Tree” is based on a 16th century German folk song. This song became associated with the traditional Christmas tree by the early 20th century and became popular as a Christmas carol across the Western world.
Back in England, it was Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, who was responsible for popularizing the custom. In 1848 the ‘Illustrated London News’ journal published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a bedecked fir tree at Windsor Castle, making it the height of festive fashion. Victorian Christmas trees were decorated with toys and small gifts, candles, candies, popcorn strings, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbons and paper chains.
The tradition of the Christmas tree began in North America as early as the 17th Century when German settlers recreated festive scenes from their homeland. By the 19th century Christmas trees were very popular in the USA and the sale of tree decorations became a lucrative industry. Of course, Americans took this European tradition to the next level and began to place gigantic Christmas trees in public spaces. Electric tree lights first made their appearance at the end of the 19th century and the electricity industry lobbied hard for the first “National Christmas Tree” at the White House as a publicity stunt for the wonders of electricity. A 20-ft.-tall Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center first went up in 1931 when the building was still under construction; by putting so many people unemployed during the Great Depression back to work, the tree became a symbol of hope.
Traditional Christmas trees are usually fir trees which take around 12 years to grow from seed. Fir trees prefer to grow in climates that are not too hot or dry or too severely cold in winter. In the USA, North Carolina and Oregon are big Christmas tree producing states. In the land of my birth, parts of Scotland which are protected from the worst of the snow by the Gulf Stream, are perfect for growing these beautiful trees.
While I love the beauty and smell of a fresh fir tree at Christmas it is a lot of work to select and haul the tree, cut the trunk and let it sit in water before potting the tree in the house. Don’t even get me started on the endless vacuuming of pine needles! So artificial trees do have an appeal and are especially popular in countries and regions where fresh trees are hard to grow or procure.
Artificial Christmas trees also began in Germany during the late 19th century when the mass deforestation led to a shortage. People began making trees of dyed goose feathers and by the early 1900’s, the Addis Brush Company in America realized that there must be a better way to build an artificial Christmas tree. Addis was known for making one of the first toilet bowl brushes. They used the same methods for constructing an artificial Christmas tree, which had huge advantages over he goose feather trees because they could hold more weight allowing for more ornaments.
In the 1960’s silver aluminium trees became popular and the techniques and quality of artificial trees have continued to improve into the 21st century. And if people who don’t want the hassle of a real tree miss the smell of fir, you can now buy pine scented sprays to add to the ambiance!
There is a lot more information at www.history.com I will leave you with a traditional anonymous Christmas quote which I am sure will resonate with all of us after everything that has happened in 2020: “The best gifts in life will never be found under a Christmas tree; those gifts are friends, family, children and the one you love.”
God Bless America and Merry Christmas! Stay safe, stay well, and stay positive.
Lesley grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at email@example.com or via her PR and marketing agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com