My phone is plugged in and the almost five-hour playlist begins with Bing Crosby’s tune “Winter Wonderland.” The morning has already been spent hauling the artificial tree and the Rubbermaid bins filled with decorations upstairs from the basement cubby hole. It’s only Nov. 17, but it’s Christmas time at my house. My dad and sister think my mom and I are crazy; we love it.
The process of setting up our Christmas tree has always been special for my family. Since I was a kid, I’ve been hanging the same ornaments on the thin branches of our artificial tree and we discuss the significance of each one. They’re wrapped nicely in tissue paper in gift boxes to be sure they don’t break while stacked box upon box in storage for the year. Unwrapping them is like unwrapping a gift minus the surprise.
Our ornaments are a bit untraditional, mismatched and falling apart, but the process of putting them on the tree is a tradition that started long before I was born.
According to History.com, having a decorated tree during the holidays wasn’t popular until the 16th century when devout Christians brought trees into their homes in Germany. Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer from the time, is credited for being the first to clip candles to the branches of an evergreen after witnessing the beauty of twinkling stars in the sky.
Before great numbers of German and Irish immigrants migrated to North America in the 19th century, the tree and the idea of Christmas as a holiday was frowned upon. In Massachusetts, people were often fined for hanging decorations on Dec. 25th. The celebration wasn’t fully accepted by the world until the mid-1800s.
In 1846, however, Queen Victoria and her German prince were sketched in the London News with their children standing around a Christmas tree, setting the trend for the rest of the world.
My nana, great-grandma Margaret-Anne Lowther, doesn’t remember having much for decorations when she was young as the times were tough in the “Dirty ‘30s.”
“I must have been seven or eight before there was anything as outrageous as Christmas is now,” she recalls.
My nana’s family always had a star on the top of their tree, but other than that, the tree was pretty bare. Because the family was quite large – she had four other siblings – and her dad was overseas for the Second World War, the most they had was a few ornaments and clip-on candle holders with lit candles for light.
“Lights have always been one of the most inspiring aspects of Christmas,” writes author Margaret Schiffer in her book Christmas Ornaments: A Festive Study. Traditionally the lights were a symbol of Christ and a reminder that Christmas was a time to worship “The Light of The World.” But they didn’t only have religious meaning – they were also used for their “fiery beauty.”
The beauty of a Christmas tree is what I admire most about the holidays. Some nights, if the weather isn’t too harsh, I purposely miss my bus home from school and walk down Memorial Drive to the next stop just to peek at people’s Christmas trees through their house windows. Most of the ones I see are colour coordinated gold, silver or blue and have ornaments with all the same shape. But my tree is multi-colour and full of lights, strings of beads and ornaments of all shapes and sizes. It’s what it always has been.
The oldest ornament my family has on our tree is from 1939. My nana recalls this ornament vividly from when she was a child. It’s a palm-sized bell ornament from The Bay with cursive writing of “Merry Christmas” on the front and “Your Christmas Wishing Bell, From The Bay” on the back. Although she can’t remember the significance of this ornament, she knows that it has been in the family for quite a long time.
A few other ornaments from my nana’s childhood have made it onto our tree every year. But a lot of others didn’t make it as they broke over the years– including a few handmade ones from my nana’s aunties from St. John in the ‘30s and ‘40s. A lot of those were homemade, making them the most special.
Homemade ornaments were prominent on Christmas trees before the commercialization of the small pieces in 1870, writes Schiffer. A lot of natural objects were used like greenery, pine cones, nuts, fruits and more. Later, homemade ornaments were made of cardboard and lace with gold paper trim. Handmade ornaments are still seen today on Christmas trees, especially mine.
Every year we put our ornaments carefully on the tree to not to break our homemade holiday masterpieces. I have quite a few original pieces of my own hanging and so does my mom. They might have been crafts from when we were in elementary school, but they are still just as important to us as our elegant and old-fashioned glass baubles.
Those glass baubles used to be known as kugels in Germany around the 1820s. The glass blowing industry and kugel making became a success in 1840 and were sought out by a man named Woolworth who eventually brought the ornaments to America in mass quantity in 1890. These ornaments are “considered the most traditional ornaments by many,” writes Schiffer.
Christmas traditions vary from household to household, but in my family, our traditions run deep. We’ve had the same artificial tree for about 20 years. We buy a new ornament with the date every year and hang the same old ones we’ve always had around it. We use the same star, the same strings of beads and even listen to the same playlist. The bell ornament has been hung for nearly 80 years and I can see myself telling my kids the story behind it when we begin the same tree decorating ritual.
Editor: Nathan Kunz | firstname.lastname@example.org