Christmas Trees: Not Just For Putting Gifts Under

It’s hard to imagine that Christmas is upon us again — the the months seem to melt away!  I overheard a conversation this morning in which one of the participants said something to the effect that they “hadn’t bothered” to put up a tree this year.  How odd, I thought.  Another person agreed that, if it weren’t for their kids, they “wouldn’t bother” either.  What a shame, I mused.  You see, I can’t imagine not having a Christmas tree.  To me, it’s not just something for putting gifts under, but rather a beautiful tradition that goes back to Pagan times.  Which, of course, led me to do a little digging. :)

How It All Got Started

Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return…

Queen Victoria and her family, pictured around one of the first Christmas trees.

Queen Victoria and her family, pictured around one of the first Christmas trees.

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans…

In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.

By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.

The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

The tree in our apartment complex lobby, decorated by many hands...

The tree in our apartment complex lobby, decorated by many hands…

So, perhaps from now on you won’t see the decorating of your tree as a chore to be crossed off a long list, but rather, as a lovely tradition that signals the beginning of a quiet, cleansing, rejuvenating season of light and hope.

Our family Christmas tree of 2012, just waiting -- not for gifts, but for the arrival of daughters, and grandson, and people we haven't see for a very long time.

Our family Christmas tree of 2012, just waiting — not for gifts, but for the arrival of daughters, and grandson, and people we haven’t seen for a very long time.

“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree:  the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.” – Burton Hillis

(quoted text from history.com)

Holiday Trivia

Christmas Trivia Fun

1. What Christmas plant is “Viscum” used to label:

Mistletoe
Holly
Ivy
Sage

2. The name of Scrooge’s dead business partner:

James Willcot
John Mantis
Jacob Marely
Jimmy Booth

3. Which author made the remark “I gave them for Dinner a Piece of rost Beef and plumb Puddings – and after dinner half a Pint of strong Beer apiece. “:

Philip Larkin
James Woodforde
Samuel Johnson
Evelyn Waugh

4. Who tried to steal Christmas from the “Whos of Whoville” in the 1966 cartoon based on the Dr. Seuss Story?:

The Grinch
The Snowman
Hattie Jacques
Ian Holm

5. What was the film called in which Peter Auty sang Walking in the Air?:

The Grinch
The Snowman
Hattie Jacques
Ian Holm

6. What Christmas food is made from “marsh-whorts”:

Stuffing
Sweet Potatos
Marshmellows
Cranberry sauce

7. Which ocean is Christmas Island in:

Pacific Ocean
Atlantic Ocean
Indian Ocean
Arctic Ocean

8. Who wrote the poem, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”:

Paul Thereaux
Walt Whitman
James Joyce
T S Eliot

9. Which continent is the turkey from:

South America
North America
Europe
Australia

10. In which author’s novel is it “always winter but never Christmas”:

C S Lewis
John Masefield
Jacob Marley
Sherlock Homes

Answers can be found here!  You can take the quiz there, too.

The Wonderful Fruited Cake

You either love it or hate it...from what camp are you?

Some will smile with delightful anticipation…some will screw up their faces in distaste.  Such is the essence of fruitcake, it seems — you either love it or hate it.

I am of the camp that loves it.  The rich, buttery aroma of those heavily fruited cakes is as much a Christmas tradition to me as the tree itself.  Of course, it wasn’t always that way.

When I was a little girl, my mother always made two fruitcakes every year — one light, and one dark.  On a day that was deemed “just right” for the long, slow bake — perhaps one of those days when the air smelled like snow — she would get up extra early in the morning, cut and flour the huge mixing bowls of nuts, raisins, and candied fruit and set out the rest of the ingredients to come to room temperature.  Pounds of rich butter (margarine or shortening won’t do for fruitcakes!) and a dozen eggs warmed on the counter.  And then came the arduous task of mixing it all together and putting it into the prepared pans.  The kitchen would soon be filled with the wonderful aroma of spices and butter, molasses and dark sugar.  I would be shooed into another room to play lest my jumping around would make the cakes “fall”.

When the cakes were finally ready to come out of the oven, there was such excitement and nervous anticipation as they cooled a few minutes in their pans.  Then they would be turned out onto racks to cool with proud exclamations of how “perfectly golden” and “wonderfully moist” the cakes were.  When fully cooled, they were wrapped in a layer of brandy soaked cheesecloth, then plastic wrap, and then stored in cake tins from the 1950′s that were just the right size for the cakes.  They were left to “season” in a cool, dark place until the ceremonious first taste.

Then one day in December, my Mom and her best friend, Florence (my godmother), would share the ritual of the first cut over several cups of tea in china cups, always pronouncing that, indeed, that year’s cake outshone all those that had gone before.

It took me a while to warm up to fruitcake, and I never did develop a close relationship with the dark cakes, but I eventually came to look forward to the fudgy, golden goodness of the light ones.  My Mom hasn’t made fruitcakes, light or dark, for a few years now.  Manipulating the heavy batter bothers her arthritic hands and arms and, though I completely understand why she gave up the ritual, I must say that the lead up to Christmas doesn’t seem quite the same without this long-standing tradition.

So, I’ve taken over the baking of the fruit cakes.  Rather than make one large cake, I usually bake three smaller ones and share them with my parents, Charlie’s folks, and keep one for us me.  Charlie and none of our daughters can stand fruitcake — which leaves all the more for me. :)

How about you?  Love it, or hate it?