Sunday, December 20, 2015

Forever Green: Trees of the Winter Solstice

Snowy evergreen trees in Austria
Many people are familiar with the old German folk song that goes like this (literal translation at right):
 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.
Our modern Christmas tree--a tree decorated to celebrate Christmas--was documented first in 16th century Germany when Christians began cutting spruces, pines, and firs to bring into their homes. But in the English-speaking world many Christians associated the trees with pagan religions even into the mid-19th century. In 1659 the "no fun" New England Puritans banned not only Christmas trees, but any celebration of Christmas that was not a religious service. However, the practice of using an evergreen as a Christmas tree finally caught on in anglophone countries when Queen Victoria and her German husband were drawn standing around a decorated tree with their children in 1848. If the Queen could do it, so could her subjects.
The famous picture of the royal family gathered around their Christmas tree.
Three years later, an entrepreneur opened the first American Christmas tree market in New York City, selling trees he cut down in the Adirondack Mountains. Fifty years after that (1901), the first commercial Christmas tree farm was established in New Jersey with the planting of 25,000 Norway spruce. Since then, the growing and selling of holiday trees has become a billion-dollar industry.
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.
Until the late 19th century, there were no electric tree lights, so people used candles--a practice, according to folklore, initiated by Martin Luther.  My Grandfather Busch was so terrified of fire after his sister died when her skirts caught fire from a fireplace that he would allow the candles to burn on the tree only a few minutes before extinguishing them. While they burned, he stood anxiously by with buckets of water and sand, just in case. My father and his sisters had to be satisfied with the brief display--although it was made more special by its brevity.

The first electrically lighted White House Christmas tree, standing in the Oval Office, 1895.
My family has always been partial to the short-needled evergreens, the spruces and firs, because, as my mother said, they "smell like Christmas." Selecting and decorating a tree has always been an important part of holiday preparations. One year I remember freezing for over an hour in the Second Ward schoolyard on Eighth Avenue while my mother and I looked through just about every tree in the lot in our quest for the "perfect" one. I'm sure we found it. We always did.
Christmas morning, showing off the doll I got from Santa, with the tree and train.
Several years ago, during an especially snowy December in Minneapolis, I decided to indulge my fantasy of bringing home a tree on a sled. I hauled out my Flexible Flyer, polished the runners, hitched up my two border collies and headed for the neighborhood hardware store three blocks away.

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.
This year I downsized my tree to about half the size of ones in recent years. I got another Fraser fir--bought it trussed up at the local hardware store lot--and when I untied it and set it up, voila! it was (once again) perfect. I decided that I'd decorate it only with old ornaments from my childhood in Pittsburgh. In the 1950s, my cocker spaniel Buffy knocked the tree over twice chasing the toy train underneath. We lost most of my father's childhood ornaments in these mishaps. Over the years, they all were broken except one, a Liberty Bell c. 1910.  I still have the Bell, which enjoys pride of place on my tree every year. This year it hangs on the tree with a few dozen glass balls with stripes, stars, and silhouettes of wise men on camels from the 'Fifties. As in the 'Fifties, the lights are electric, not wax candles.
The old Liberty Bell ornament (center) with a drum I made out of milk caps in first grade.
The winter solstice holidays, whether they be Christian, Jewish, pagan, or of recent invention, are associated with many traditional practices. One of the loveliest, one that resonates with the symbolism of the solstice, is the decorating of evergreen trees. In many homes, the Christmas tree is the decorative focal point of the holiday. Whether it's a huge Norway spruce or a tiny Norfolk pine or one made of plastic or aluminum, the Christmas tree embodies the meaning of the season--rebirth, light and life overpowering darkness and death.
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.

 Happy Solstice    
                          Jolly Yule                                    
                                            Merry Christmas