Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Christmas Means Presents! Doesn't It?

"And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." - Dr. Seuss

If you ask any child, "What does Christmas Mean?" they'd probably reply, "Christmas Means Presents!" But, is that really true? Besides the religious significance of Christmas, what does Christmas really mean? Where did all the Christmas traditions come from?

Christmas Day didn't become official until 354 when Pope Gregory proclaimed December 25th as the date of the Nativity. Pope Gregory was following an early church policy of absorbing pagan rituals into Christian beliefs. So, he incorporated the December 19th Roman Saturnalia celebration of the winter solstice and the coming of spring and the winter festival of Yule into the Christian Church. The Roman Saturnalia honored the God of Harvest and had seven days of riotous merrymaking and feasting. The Yule celebration incorporated giant logs, trimmed with greenery & ribbons, which were burnt in honor of the Gods so the sun would shine brightly.

In the Middle Ages, the Christian Church added the Nativity Crib and Christmas Carols to its customs. Lavish feasting was the highlight of the festivities. However, all the celebration came to an abrupt end in 1652 when the Puritans banned Christmas in England, which was followed seven years later in Massachusetts. Christmas returned to England in 1660, but a lot of the traditions didn't return until they were revived by the Victorians. The Victorians turned what was once a riotous free-for-all celebration into a family-oriented celebration. So, we can thank the Victorians for a lot of the Christmas family traditions that we have today. Not all of them, but a lot of them.

So, I thought it would be fun between now and Christmas to post some articles on my Linda Walsh Originals - Linda's Blog about the various Christmas traditions and where they came from. So, let's start with one of my favorites "The Christmas Tree":

Christmas trees originated in Germany from an ancient pagan custom of bringing evergreens into your home. Evergreens were a symbol of life. It is said that Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546)was the first to use the Christmas Tree as a home decoration in Germany. While on a walk one Christmas Eve he noticed an evergreen tree shining in the moonlight. He couldn't forget this beautiful picture so he cut the tree down and returned home with it an decorated it with candles. He told his children that the tree should remind them of the brightness of Christmas and its message of the Savior's birth.

In Germany and in ancient northern cultures, after the December festivities, the branches of the evergreen were removed and the trunk was decorated on May 1st as a May Pole, celebrating a rebirth of spring. The tree was then cut up and the largest log was used the next December as the "Yule Log."

The Christmas Tree was introduced into England in the in 1841 by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who brought one into his house for his family. The tradition soon spread throughout England and then to America. However, as with a lot of traditions, the use of Christmas trees also caused an uproar. Some thought it was pagan idol. Eventually, it became acceptable to all.

So, it became fashionable to set up a large tree at Christmas and decorate it with lighted candles (far too dangerous today), candies, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbons and paper chains. Just think, the ants and/or rats would have a field day if we did this today. All of the earliest Christmas tree ornaments were handmade.

The kinds of trees the Victorians chose would surprise you. They were not the fat, wonderfully full trees that we think of today. The first trees were small trees that could be placed on tabletops with a lot of room between the branches. Personally, I think this is kind of nice. In fact, I decided this year to forego the big 7' tree in favor of a 4' pre-lit tree that I'm going to place on a small table covered with a tree skirt. Hopefully, I'll like this smaller tradition and will continue it for years to come.

Most of the early Victorian ornaments were homemade. Homemade paper cornucopias filled with sweets, nuts and popcorn hung on many Victorian Christmas trees. Gingerbread men, popcorn strings (you remember those don't you), gilded nuts, paper ornaments, Paper chains (you remember those, too, don't you) and ribbons. Handmade paper toys and dolls hung from the branches.

Glass ornaments made their appearance in the 1860's, primarily in the homes of German immigrants. Other early ornaments were made of lead, like stars and crosses. Around 1870 "store bought" Christmas ornaments began to replace the homemade decorations. From the 1870's to the 1890's Victorian Christmas trees were trimmed with little dolls (my favorites), wax ornaments, shaped like angels or children. Cotton and wool ornaments were also used and decorated with paper faces, buttons, and paper wings.

In the 1890's technology and consumerism greatly contributed to the way in which Christmas trees were decorated. Many families still used handmade ornaments and made it a tradition with their children to make ornaments every year (a lovely tradition which some families still do today.) In 1903 the first strings of electric lights were invented and in the 1960's the artificial Christmas tree came to be.

For me, I prefer the smell of a real Christmas tree and homemade ornaments. However, real trees are far too dangerous (and too much work) and I too succumbed to using an artificial Christmas tree (very nice, but still artificial.) My ornaments, on the other hand, are all handmade. And, guess what? Yes, (this will come as a surprise to most of you) they are mainly dolls or florals. So, enjoy your Christmas tree however you decorate it and remember the words of these famous quotes:

"I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects." - Charles Dickens

"Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall." Larry Wilde

Animated Tree Graphics by, The Victorian Era Online


  1. Hi Linda
    Being German I know all about the tree traditions and over the years have seen such changes. When I was little we had a huge tree with REAL candles, home made decorations, sweets and sparklers all were hung on the tree:)!!!Now we have real plastic!! I have started last year to get a small real tree and decorate it with handmade items from much nicer and special.
    Great artical

  2. Thanks, Silvia. Oh, my! REAL candles. That had to have been dangerous. Plastic might not look as good, but it certainly isn't dangerous.