|Snowy evergreen trees in Austria|
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, O fir tree, O fir tree,
wie treu sind deine Blätter! how true (loyal) are your needles!
Du grünst nicht nur You're green not only
zur Sommerzeit, in summertime,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit. But also in winter, when it snows.
The most important characteristic is that the tree is green year-round, even when it's snowing. The symbolic use of evergreen trees and plants around the winter solstice is a European tradition going back to antiquity. Ancient peoples associated evergreens with the promise of returning life. As the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere approached, people decorated their homes and temples with evergreens to celebrate the daylight lengthening again. In northern Europe, the Celts and Scandinavians marked the winter solstice by decorating with evergreens. On Jul, December 20th, the darkest time for all living things, ancient Norsemen celebrated the rebirth of sun god Baldr, slain with a sprig of mistletoe.
|"The Death of Baldr" by W.G. Collingwood (1908) illustrates how Loki guided the hand of the blind Höðr in throwing the fatal branch of mistletoe.|
|The famous picture of the royal family gathered around their Christmas tree.|
|A wagon loaded with trees in Hartford, Connecticut, c.1890 (Connecticut Historical Society)|
By the 1890s, the decorating of Christmas trees had become a well established tradition in America. Two scenes in Darkness Visible are devoted to describing the Bernhardt and Jones families' setting up and decorating their Christmas trees. In East Liberty, Karl Bernhardt drills holes in a broomstick and places sticks in them to create a rustic artificial tree; his wife and daughter decorate it with cookies and candy. Emlyn buys a fir from a German farmer and winds up helping arrange some around the altar in St.John's Lutheran Church. Later, he watches Eirwen hang home-made decorations on it.
Both of these scenes in Darkness Visible are taken from personal experience and family folklore; both are stories from the German tradition of the winter evergreen tree. One of my father's favorite Christmas stories was how his German immigrant grandparents were so poor that on Christmas Eve his grandfather would make a tree out of a broomstick, on which they hung edibles. The other half of the story is the part where their seven sons would come downstairs before dawn's early light and strip the tree bare in minutes. The wooden structure Emlyn visited was long gone by the time my family went to St. John's Lutheran, but in the brick 20th century church on 10th and Ann, the congregation would set up a creche to the left of the altar and place undecorated evergreen trees around it.
|The Metropolitan Museum in New York City annually displays a Baroque creche with an exquisitely adorned tree.|
|The first electrically lighted White House Christmas tree, standing in the Oval Office, 1895.|
|Christmas morning, showing off the doll I got from Santa, with the tree and train.|
I picked out the usual perfect tree, tied it to the sled, and started home. All went well for the first half block, but then the 8-foot tree started to slide off the 5-foot sled. The dogs, nervous about the big scary weird thing on the sled, pulled hither and yon, making things worse. Three times during the trip home, the tree fell off the sled. Getting up and down curbs at street corners was tricky. By the time I got the tree home, I was exhausted and the tree and dogs were covered with slush. The next day, after we all thawed out, I decorated the tree and determined that it would be the first and only one I'd venture to haul home on a sled.
|If you want to haul a tree on a sled, use huskies, not border collies.|
|The old Liberty Bell ornament (center) with a drum I made out of milk caps in first grade.|
|1960's Modern Christmas tree by Lawrence "Bud" Stoecker|
|Postmodern "ABIES Electronicus" on Grand Square, Brussels, Belgium|
|This year's perfect Fraser fir, adorned with 'Fifties glass ornaments and handmade ones.|