Growing up in Louisa – Deck the Halls!
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
After all, ‘tis the Season to be Jolly,’ eh? Well, I took some time to research where all of this merriment arose. Frankly, the histories I saw took parts of our ‘traditional’ celebrations back to at least the fourth or fifth centuries. That was a lot for my unsophisticated mind to handle, so I dialed the time continuum forward to at least the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries and started there. If you are left wondering about earlier times you can do your own search to the answers. Besides, you may find things I might have missed, or you may have little interest in ancient history.
My trip told me that while portions of our traditional celebration came from pagan religious practices mixed with Christian practices that had grown up around the celebration of Christ’s birth. It would be the latter part of the eighteenth century when what we know as a Christmas tree, popped up in Germany. As evidence, the song ‘O Tannenbaum’ was part of the German tradition. Other similar practices amalgamated with traditions through creating wreaths, putting up greenery, having special meals, and giving gifts gave spirit to the winter celebration. Early American traditions merged from other cultures because of the ‘mixing bowl’ effect. International traditions were brought together with the integration of peoples from western Europe and other places. Since I have already done the Ancester.com search I can clearly put my ancestors in that group since I am mostly Irish, Scot, and English. Does that make me a Celtic writer? Well, maybe just a person of Celtic bloodlines.
The most common activity aside from the Christian church celebration of the nativity as described in Luke 2, was the mid-European practice of bringing in a tree and adding decorations. One cannot imagine today not having a Christmas tree, or perhaps several Christmas trees to decorate our homes. While that tradition may have come from Germany, the practice is so widespread that today will find them in nearly every Christian household around the world, and occasionally even in Jewish, or the homes of other faiths. The legends of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, who delivers gifts to all ‘good boys and girls,’ also made the trip across the water, and ties neatly into the notion of placing ‘gifts’ under the tree to be opened on Christmas morn. That is how I remember my Christmases past.
Back in the day, live trees were cut from the forested hills around our town, or from people we knew that lived outside of town. While many have memories of cutting those trees and dragging them home, I was involved in this kind of thing only a few times. I’m sure this was partly because of my tender age, not having equipment or land, or the proper skills to prevent my untimely death. My great-aunt, Shirley Chapman, a high-school math teacher, usually reached out to her students who lived and worked on farms, likely paying them some reasonable amount to have them cut and deliver a tree. I do remember seeing a freshly cut tree on the front porch. We boys had the job of fitting it into a metal stand in our living room. I recall that my Aunt Shirley was a stickler that our tree was a cedar. I never knew why, but as might be normal with kids, I figured she must be right.
There are two general types of Christmas trees in today’s marketplace: real and artificial. Many people swear by real trees, perhaps because of strong family traditions, or maybe because they like the smell of greenery in the house. It might also be because some rebel over the concept that a ‘fake’ tree is meets the traditional requirements. People have the right to that opinion. Others prefer a tree that can be used multiple times and that create less mess. Let’s consider the attributes of real trees:
The more popular real trees are of Balsam Fir, Nobel Fir, Scots Pine, and Douglas Fir. Some of these, and others have a citrus smell, while others have less fragrance. Some have thicker branches, or have a manmade perfect cone shape, or are known for keeping their needles intact, longer. While Eastern Red Cedar is popular with many, Blue Spruce is a favorite of others. At my age, I don’t really care so long as it looks like a Christmas tree and can hold the family heirloom decorations. I suspect the grandkids worry more about the presents underneath.
Fake trees are of two classes: plastic or aluminum. The metal ones came out as a shiny product of midcentury modern (1950’s), because it went with the sleek, contemporary décor of the day. Some of us thought they were ‘too artificial’ and garish and smacked of space travel. Sputnik and trips into outer space was all the rage and so ‘with it.’ I wasn’t and still don’t like the ‘retro’ look.
Plastic trees have come a long way in that some now closely resemble the real thing. It is hard to tell that it isn’t real once it is fully dressed in decorations. Today, the more expensive ones are ‘pre-lit.’ That solves the problem inherent with running strings of lights. Those become tangled during the off-season, and some require that all bulbs lite. This makes finding the bad bulb a real chore. While there’s no law preventing someone from adding more lights to a pre-lit model, including ‘bubble lights’ of old, it isn’t particularly recommended. Just as the trees have improved, so have electrical circuits and wiring. I remember clearly that our old screw-in fuses had a way of requiring replacement at Christmas time. Today we usually have that covered with larger ‘breaker’ boxes and grounded systems. Electric lights, of course, are far superior to using candles and risking a family fire-night out. Open fireplaces are problem, enough.
Ornaments represent another issue. I know that today my family has a mixture of some very nice trinkets that we continue to pull out every year. When we open the boxes it’s like seeing old friends. Comments such as ‘This is my favorite,’ or ‘I forgot about this one,’ punctuates the conversations. We see the one we made by hand years ago for mom’s special gift. We dig out and discover afresh an old framed picture of a child now grown and having children of their own. Garlands and strings (thinking popcorn) and loads of ice sickles finish the tree except for an angel, or star on top.
My family has traditionally called the kids, even after they’re grown, to meet to decorate the tree and to make gingersnap cookies, sugar cookies, and have some eggnog for refreshments. When the tree is finished then mom puts up the remainder of wreaths, garlands, nativity displays, nutcracker dolls, holly, and mistletoe. The teens pretend to shy away from the kissing spot, but grownups have no trouble. Who knows what really happens when distractions take our attention? The railing and bannisters are all wrapped with sprigs of pine, while bells and ceramic collectables are put on display. We are not far off from putting piles of packages under the tree.
It is time to watch the ‘Polar Express,’ ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ or ‘How the Grinch stole Christmas.’ No matter how old I get, I still enjoy watching the kids watching these films. What a blessing traditions are to families!
Decking the hall with boughs of holly is a family effort and builds memories for young and old alike. Breaking out records of Christmas Carols is part of the evening. We sing along with Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Gene Autry, Burl Ives, or others. Old memories are refreshed for us old folks, and new ones are created for the young.
It’s a good time to take a breath, relax, and pull up some of those memories. Maybe you’ll be in one of mine? I strongly feel that the richness of sharing and repeating traditions can’t be beat. We all can make life exciting and fun, if not for ourselves, then for our friends and families. After all, we merely need to ‘deck the halls.’