Ancient traditions bring holiday cheer By Rachel Kelly
The simple beauty of Christmas décor is steeped in ancient tradition, as well as providing frivolous beauty. Here in the Northwest, our holiday cheer and decorations hold special significance because of our long and dark winters. Though they’re not as cold as some, the days are certainly short. A little snow goes a long way toward brightening up the landscape, but in the meantime, a few evergreen boughs, candles and Christmas lights bring cheer during the (seemingly) everlasting winter.
It’s thought that bringing evergreen boughs into the home originated as long ago as ancient times, even dating back to the Vikings. Before there was electricity, and food was made in a hearth, the everlasting green of the branches served as a symbol of hope that spring would come again; that the sun would shine again in the mornings and evenings; and that the trees would once again fill with songbirds. It goes without saying that decorating the home, and decorating with neighbors, was an excuse to connect with nature and friends during a time when the weather kept everyone indoors. Today that tradition lives on in our long ropes of evergreen, tinsel, and in our rich Christmas colors.
The modern Christmas tree, versus evergreen boughs, came much later. In the late 1500s in Germany, it was a common tradition to decorate bare trees with nuts and fruit. The ornamentation filled up the empty space left by the absent leaves and was a fun source of entertainment. However, it wasn’t until 1605 that a fir tree was brought inside and decorated with paper flowers and treats. The idea spread across Germany for obvious reasons and flourished for a couple hundred years. In the 1800s, German immigrants brought the tradition with them, where it became popular in the United States. Decorations expanded to include whatever the decorator had on hand: popcorn, cranberries, streamers … and often weren’t too extremely extravagant.
Lights were a common theme when decorating the tree and the home. Long before electric lights came along, trees were decorated with candles adorned with foil, which was used to reflect the light around the room. The family would nightly re-ornament and light the worn-down candles to bring a bit of cheer to the early evening.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that ornamentation on the tree became more extravagant. During that time, Hans Greiner in Germany began making glass “baubles,” which were sculpted glass balls of various colors. The simple glass ornaments reflected the light and added a certain flair to the humble Christmas tree. While popcorn necklaces and cranberries were still used, the ornament certainly upped the decorating game. In the late 19th century, F.W. Woolworth brought the idea to America, and it quickly caught on. The ornaments were available in department stores across the country. Eventually the ornaments were injected with molten glass to make new shapes. At some point ornaments began to be made with moldable plastic to allow for an even greater variety of shapes and variations, resembling the ornaments that we have today.
Still more of our Christmas décor originates with Christian and Jewish traditions. The lighting of the menorah is meant to be a testament of God’s provision, symbolizing the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. The menorah is not traditionally used as a practical light, such as something to read or write by. It is only ornamental and is placed in Jewish windows to stand as a reminder of God’s blessing to the temple and his people. The Christmas star on the top of the Christmas tree is a symbol of the star that led the three wisemen to Jesus after he was born, an event that Messianic Jews also celebrate in their homes.
The very popular candy cane was originally created as a clever treat that was used to bribe children to sit during Christmas services. The simple “J” shape was chosen because it was the shape of a shepherd’s crook. It was a perfect accompaniment to the story of Jesus’ birth, whose first witnesses were shepherds. Originally the candy was made without stripes or peppermint flavoring, simply being sugar sticks. It wasn’t until later that the red stripes and peppermint flavoring were added with the intention of the red being the color of hope and peppermint symbolizing cleansing.
Today our ornamental decorations, as well as our favorite candies, are personal expressions of our faith, our families and our hopes for the future in the midst of winter—much like they always have been throughout history. However, we have the luxury of being considerably more versatile. Often glass ornaments commemorate births of loved ones or wedding anniversaries. Some ornaments might remind us of special places such as a memorable vacation, a faraway home, or dear friends that we once knew and hope to see again. During Christmas we use our decorations to remind us of moments of past joy and symbols of hope for the future. Our ornaments, lights, stars, trees, candy and evergreen wreaths are used as remembrances of birth, life and peace. In this season we find our strength in our intentional dwelling on all that is good. Decorations seem almost frivolous at times, and yet they are part of a deeper ritual that keeps us focused on all that is right and new.
This year, there are all sorts of places to go and memories to be had in our community. We honor the age-old tradition of decoration and celebration by venturing out to be with our neighbors, and coming together to celebrate. There are a lot of special places to find just what seems right in our homes, and on our trees. There are some businesses where “baubles” can be made with family and friends, and some places where they can be bought. Whatever you plan on doing, there are some great places to look for things that serve as reminders of some of our favorite local memories.
This season, may your home be a place where all your hopes, cheer and joy find residence. As we enter into long nights, and occasional rough storms, may your home be a place of respite. May it be a place of lights, baubles, candles, warmth, comfort, hope and greenery. And when you go out to shop, or just to be with friends, may it be an activity that brings you joy rather than stress. This year is a year of new and old traditions, and of faith in the coming year.