19 December 2007

Holidays & Celebrations:
O Tannenbaum

By Jennifer Linforth

Charlie Brown? Real? Fake? As a child of the eighties, dare I ask aluminum...?

Once indulged as a custom in royal courts of the 19th century, the Christmas tree is now a widespread icon of holiday festivities. But as varied as Christmas trees are so is its history.

The modern tradition is traced to 16th century Germany. Small fir trees were decorated with edible ornaments like apples, pretzels, dates and nuts and set outside guild houses and churches. Originally, for early Germanic tribes, the tree was symbolic of the trinity due to its triangular shape. By the 17th century the custom moved into homes. It usage spread by the Protestant majority in the 18th century, but did not increase across the Germanic regions until the wake of the Congress of Vienna, when Prussian officials began to spread its usage.

Trees ranged as far as England, coming from the Georgian Kings who hailed from Germany. But the German monarchy was not a favorable one in England at the time. The tradition remained a part of the royal courts. Usually isolated to those who had some form of German influence or had an image to upkeep in the eyes of the German monarchy.

All changed in 1846 with the 'Albert Tree.' Queen Victorian and her husband, German cousin Prince Albert, were depicted in the London news standing around a Christmas tree. Though Victoria's family used the tree to a degree in her childhood, Albert is credited with bringing the tree to life in the royal family. Like many today, he wanted to celebrate a tradition of his youth. Queen Victoria was a popular monarch. What she did... England did! And thus the Christmas tree spread like wildfire and not just in England, but worldwide.

Decorations were still homemade at this time until 1850, when fancy glass beads and tinsel made of pure silver (a German creation again, first produced in 1610) started to creep onto the branches. The Rauschgoldengel, angels dressed in gilded tin, became a common sight. Small gifts started to be hung on the branches as well as scattered beneath the tree.

By 1880 the tree became a hodgepodge of designs, from fanciful decorations to the aesthetic trees that were delicately balanced in design. Come 1900, theme trees emerged. Single colored ribbons or balls, musical trees, or trees depicting other countries were fashionable. With the death of Victoria in 1901, so died the Christmas tree. Few still had the huge parlor trees strewn with shining tinsel, but most families opted for the smaller table top tree. (The first sort of tree she was familiar with in her youth.) It was not until Charles Dickens returned the nostalgia of the tree to his books did the tradition pick up again in the 1930s.

Wartime Europe saw dip in the use of the Christmas tree. Many families were hesitant to display the beloved ornaments and heirlooms with air raids being a constant threat. Public trees were still a sight--and a much needed morale booster. Fast forward thirty years to 1960 America and the iconic silver aluminum trees. Patented in 1950, the 'Silver Pine Tree' was designed to have a revolving light source at its base. Colored gelatin windows over the lights would give the tree a different shade with each rotating pass. No need for decorations.

By 1970, the good old Victorian nostalgia was back and it has held fast. However enter the '90s and fiber optic trees...

This writer grew up in an Italian family. My mother was German, my father Italian. For some reason I always identified more with my German heritage. But to this day I always think of my Italian Aunt's tree when Christmas rolls around. The perfectly triangular, totally blue Christmas tree. Blue branches, blue garland, blue ornaments. It gave a whole new meaning to 'I'll Have A Blue Christmas.' I swears she pressed a button and the tree rose from a hole in the floor decorated in the exact manner. Every. Single. Year. Those who grew up in Italian families will understand...

But I hold fast my German roots. With snowshoes on and ax in hand an entire afternoon is spent hiking my tweleve acres looking for a balsam fir to fulfill its Christmas destiny. And I do look at it that way. No need to tell the tree its fate... Once inside we wrap it with handmade ornaments, wooden beads and flags proclaiming my German heritage and my husband's Danish roots. Go ahead, share with us. What is your favorite type of tree? What is your favorite decoration? And fess up... who remembers an aluminum tree?