There are many traditions and customs that surround the holiday season but one that brings the greatest delight to children and more or less signifies the beginning of this special time is the Christmas tree. What does a Christmas tree symbolize? How did it evolve into one of the most celebrated icons of the season? It has a long history.
In ancient times, during the winter solstice, green boughs were brought into the home in the belief that the evergreen trees, which retained their colour throughout all four seasons, would help the Sun God regain his strength thus bringing the arrival of spring with its warmer weather, sooner. This was viewed by many as a pagan practice. The modern version of this festive icon emerged in Western Germany in the 16th-century. Christians, at that time, were starting to attach their own religious meanings to the evergreen. To them, the Christmas tree was symbolic of the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today, I think it’s safe to say, for most, this holiday tradition means parties, gifts and Santa Claus.
Just as the meaning of the Christmas tree has changed and evolved over time, so have the ways in which we locate it, bring it into our homes and decorate it. During my childhood, Dad and my sister, Betty were responsible for scouting out our perfect annual tree. Two weeks before Christmas, Dad would harness up the horses, hook them up to the flatbed sleigh and he and Betty would strike off to the bush on their mission. Every year a lovely tree would be placed on our front porch where it would sit until all the snow had melted from its branches and then it would find its way into the ‘corner of honour’ in the living room. Years went by and this ritual continued without incident. Then one December Betty invited her fiancé, Dave to take part in the fun by joining her and Dad on this little excursion. Dave had no experience with horses and these super-sized farm animals were certainly intimidating but being a good sport, and more importantly, wanting to look good in the eyes of his future father-in-law, he reluctantly agreed to go along for “The Ride”.
Everything went well until they arrived at their destination. Dad hopped off the sleigh and handed the reins to Dave who was now, whether he liked it or not, in charge of the horses. A nervous Dave stood there and all was calm until Dad CRANKED up the chainsaw to cut down the chosen tree. The horses bolted and Dave’s face turned as white as the newly fallen snow. (But there was really no chance of any disaster happening as this was December in Grey County – the snow was up to the horses’ bellies.) I’m not sure whether it was Dad’s laughter or the jolt he felt as the horses lunged forward that haunts Dave but he never again went on this trip.
For city dwellers, Christmas trees were found in parking lots or at “cut your own” tree farms. Then came the “fake” trees. I was surprised to find out that artificial trees were out and about in Germany in the 1880’s. I thought it was a much more modern invention. Today these trees can be green, white, silver, blue or God forbid, pink. It all depends on how it fits into one’s décor.
Everyone has their own ideas on how to decorate. Some go all out while others take a more minimalist’s approach. Back in the 1980’s my friend Judy, always had the most beautifully decorated evergreen I have ever seen. Her tree had a theme and hours were spent placing each coordinated ornament in its precise spot. When the job was completed, it was a masterpiece. I always felt a picture of it should have been highlighted in the Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
The Pilon tree, on the other hand, was different, a little more unique. It had every colour and type of ornament, imaginable. A gold, spray-painted macaroni tree and a beaded little man and woman made by Tammy and Steve when they were in kindergarten holds a special place of honour on our tree, even to this day. We call it ‘the memory tree’ as throughout the years, ornaments made by our kids and now our grandkids are proudly displayed.
When the grandkids were around the ages of six or seven, they took over this job. The first Saturday in December was their time to help Grampa decorate the tree. Chuck would string the lights throughout the boughs, place the star on top and then the kids would attack this task with that marvelous excitement that children exhibit during this time of year. In the early years, the bottom of the tree was totally loaded as far as their little hands could reach with strings of pearls, balls, icicles, candy canes, etc. I did not touch, change or add anything to their work of art. As the children grew, the ornaments crept a little higher up until finally, taller kids resulted in a totally decorated tree from top to bottom.
When COVID arrived, our Christmas tree experienced another transformation. Holiday traditions and festivities are now held at our daughter and son’s homes so we have drastically downsized on decking the halls, hanging the balls, etc. No longer do we haul out the artificial tree. Instead, I have found a much easier target for my decorating. For the past couple of years, the now seven-foot yucca plant in the corner of our living room has fulfilled this role nicely. It does not need to be pulled out of storage. It does not require any assembly, nor does it need to be ‘put away’ at the end of the month. I continue to place all our memory paraphernalia on this new substitute so the special meaning of this tradition still prevails.
Our representation of a Christmas tree may appear ugly or weird to some, but since beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, I see our tree at least equal to if not better than the one on display at City Hall. (My imagination is a wonderful gift!)
May your Christmas be happy and bright.