The Well-Dressed Christmas Tree
With all due respect to Santa, the central icon of the season is the Christmas tree. I can't imagine the holidays without the magic of wonderfully decorated trees, each different, each special. Like the hearth or a dining table, a Christmas tree draws people to it -- and to one another. Our visceral response to evergreens makes me wonder if they have magical properties we have long forgotten. The scents of pine, spruce, and fir trees not only connect us to the natural world, they actually cheer and invigorate us. No wonder aromatherapists use the essential oils of evergreens for their energizing and healing properties.
A Christmas tree serves as a diary of a family's history: Each ornament records a moment in the lives of its members. As you unwrap your ornaments you might recall that your angel tree topper was a gift from a dear friend. The little glass birds from the Paris flea market remind you of a vacation before a decade ago. You think of your favorite great-aunt when you open the vintage glass icicles she gave you, still in their original cardboard box. And so it goes, with trinkets marking the births of children and their own clumsily crafted ornaments made of dough and paper recording the passage of years. All these fragments of your life hang on the tree and shine back at you, reminding you of who you are as well as the meaning of the holiday. That's why I think of a Christmas tree as having the same evocative qualities as a photo album or a personal art gallery.Immigrant Influences
Ubiquitous as it is today, the idea of bringing a fresh-cut tree inside and covering it with trinkets was not in general practice in this country until the middle of the nineteenth century. The practice of decorating a Christmas tree originated in Germany (see "Ancient Origins" on page 17), and it was Germany that played a major role in shaping our Christmas customs. We don't know definitively where and when the first decorated Christmas trees appeared in our country; we do know that the charming custom of the Tannenbaum came to our shores with people of German birth. Pennsylvania German settlers are said to have decorated community trees as early as 1747, and the custom of the family tree may have originated with the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the very early 1800s. Others claim that Hessian soldiers stationed at Trenton, New Jersey, in 1776 were the first in this country to cut down firs and decorate them.
But not all colonial Americans celebrated Christmas. The Puritans of Massachusetts banned its observance. Many Northerners continued to consider Christmas celebrations as rowdy and sinful, instead regarding Thanksgiving as the true American holiday. On the other hand, Southerners participated in all-out Christmas celebrations as a key part of the social season. It is not surprising that the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836, followed by Louisiana and Arkansas in 1938. The first decorated Christmas tree in the White House appeared in 1856 during the administration of President Franklin Pierce. After the Civil War, the celebration of Christmas was finally well established throughout the country, and the Christmas tree was central to its observance.Jewelry for the Tree
Commercially made ornaments of silver and gilt foil and cardboard began appearing in the United States in the 1870s. By the 1880s, printed figures embossed on paper became popular along with the new invention of spun-glass angel hair. But it was the invention of glass ornaments that was to transform the look of Christmas trees around the world. The small town of Lauscha in the Thuringian Forest east of Nuremberg, Germany, had long been known for its glassblowers. These skilled craftsmen produced tiny glass beads for jewelry and dressmaking.
Early in the nineteenth century, the glassblowers found they could blow large glass bubbles, which they made when taking a break from their duties. They silvered the insides and lacquered the outsides of these big globes in bright colors just as they did their beads, and called them Kugels, German for "ball." Later, Kugels were blown into a mold to create a shape, such as an apple, a pear, an artichoke, or a cluster of grapes. Much too heavy to hang on a Christmas tree, Kugels were suspended from the ceiling, a candelabra, or a wooden frame. In addition to their beauty, they were useful in adding reflected illumination to dim, candlelit rooms.
In 1867, a gasworks built in Lauscha pioneered technology that allowed a flame to remain at a consistently high temperature, making it possible to create large, thin-walled globes. The first true glass ornaments -- light enough to hang on a tree branch -- followed quickly. By 1870, Lauschan glass pinecones, acorns, Santas, fruits and vegetables, and birds were being exported to other European countries.
These delightful trinkets quickly became Victorian status symbols, dovetailing with the collection craze for which the era is famous. The popularity of the ornaments encouraged craftsmen to become more and more inventive. More than five thousand mold designs ensured a constant supply of ingenious subjects. Different but equally wonderful glass ornaments soon were being made in Poland and Bohemia (which later became Czechoslovakia, and later still, the Czech Republic). The glittering and playful decorations perfectly symbolized the joy and light of Christmas. By 1880 glass ornaments were being imported for sale in East Coast department stores. In 1890, F. W. Woolworth began selling them in his chain of five-and-ten-cent stores nationwide. Just before the outbreak of World War II, 95 percent of the glass ornaments sold in the United States had been crafted in and around Lauscha.
After decades in which machine-made ornaments were the norm, mouth-blown glass ornaments are enjoying a revival. I am proud to have played a major role in reinvigorating this craft.Buying the Tree
But even the most beautiful ornaments cannot do the job alone. Selecting the right tree is crucial to getting the look you want. First, you need to decide on a real or an artificial tree or even a living tree with its roots balled in burlap. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. There are also many species of real trees to choose from (see "The Naked Truth" on page 186) and different types of manufactured trees (see "The Art of Artifice" on page 191).
If you have decided to go natural, you have the option of buying a cut tree or going to a tree farm to cut down a live one. The former usually allows you more options in tree species; the latter offers a fresher tree. A cut tree you purchase in a church parking lot may have been harvested over a month earlier. Properly treated, a fresh-cut tree should last for up to eight weeks, according to West Virginia Christmas-tree grower Eric Sundback. Each tree farm tends to specialize in certain species. If you are set on a certain species, call ahead to make sure it grows what you are looking for. Many growers have found they can successfully raise trees not native to the area if climate and soil conditions are appropriate. If you do plan to buy at a tree lot, go early in the season when selection is best and the trees have not had time to dry out.
Another option is having a tree shipped directly to you from a tree farm. Although this approach may be more expensive (once you factor in shipping charges), you should be able to get exactly what you want in terms of species and size. (UPS handles trees up to seven feet tall.) And since the tree is not cut until you order it, it is likely to be fresher than trees from the neighborhood lot.
The Web is full of listings of growers around the country: Just direct your search engine to "Christmas" + "trees." To narrow your search, add the name of your state. The Web site grandly titled "All Christmas Tree Farms in the USA" (www.christmas-tree.org/real/index) actually delivers on its promise. Simply log in your state to find a list of growers in your area, as well as information on tree species, prices, and directions. There are also links to individual tree farms' Web sites, some of which allow you to order online or by phone. Nova Scotia-based PLC Resources (902-863-8000; www.plc.ns.sympatico.ca) will send you a balsam fir in a variety of sheared styles and a broad array of sizes. Mountain Star Farms (888-567-2981; www.mtnstarfarms.com) offers both Fraser and balsam firs. Blue Mountain Tree Farm (888-220-TREE; www.freshchristmastrees.com) delivers to your door a Douglas, Fraser, or Concolor fir ranging from five to seven feet tall.
Before you hop into the car (or go online), measure the height of the room where you plan to place the tree. The tree should be at least a foot shorter than the ceiling in the room where it will be set up, but don't leave so much space that it looks out of scale. (Take the height of your tree topper into consideration as well.) If the tree will be visible from all sides, make sure you find one that is uniformly well shaped. On the other hand, if the tree will be placed against a wall, you can probably get away with a few imperfections.
Choose a tree with a healthy green appearance, a strong aroma, and a minimum of brown needles. Needles should be flexible and remain firmly attached when you run a branch through your hand. To test for freshness, raise the tree a few inches off the ground, shake it, then drop it firmly on the butt end to see if needles adhere. Don't worry if a few inner brown needles drop off. Check the cut base for drops of sticky resin, indicating it was freshly cut. Also make sure the trunk of the tree is straight, particularly the bottom six to eight inches.Setting Up the Tree
The right tree stand is absolutely essential to protect your tree and your precious ornaments. (Before you bring the tree in the house, see "Handle with Care" on page 188.) I had a disastrous experience eigh...