I love Christmas! I love everything about the season. Generally people are in a good mood (except toward the end when they realize they’ve been listening to “All I want for Christmas is you” since the end of September, and they’ve pretty much had it with everything). I love the festivities, the shopping, the cooking, the family time, the friend time and the decorating!
Over the course of a lifetime, decorating can take some fascinating turns. As a child, I remember that my mother (and I bet yours too, if you’re of a certain age), in addition to the big tree in the living room (or “front room,” as we called it), had a table top tree that was adorned with tiny colored glass candles on each branch filled with a liquid that bubbled when you plugged in the tree and gave it life. I remember that even when I was a child it seemed that tree had seen its better days, but I loved it and would give anything to have that tree now. That was back in the fifties. On our trip back East for Thanksgiving this year, my 8-year-old grandson bought a night light that is essentially one of those bubbly glass candles. I was about his age when we had that table top tree and I smile when I look at my grandson’s nightlight.
In the sixties, we had a gold aluminum tree decorated only with small gold balls and some tiny clear lights. Not only was it gold and metal, but the ends of each branch did not come to straight points, but seemed to explode into a sunburst of gold. Some of our friends who also had aluminum trees used to shine a multicolored revolving light onto their tree to give it more oomph. But my family was classier than that and we went with the simple elegance of the gold aluminum sunburst tree. I was a teenager at the time and pretty much thought it was hideous, always being a purist, longing for the real live green tree with its beautiful scent that would permeate throughout the downstairs of our home. A few years ago, these vintage metal trees came back into kitschy vogue for a short time and I actually thought of buying one and putting it in one of the rooms of our home. I didn’t do that because I really wanted my mom’s original gold tree. But if I come across another aluminum tree, I might just buy it and find a place of honor for it in my Christmas decorations in the coming years.
Once I had my own home, my tastes went from our tree being decorated with little red and white bows with red balls and candy canes in the early years to multicolored balls and lights along with wooden decorations made by my son to my current preference for gold and silver balls and angels, pearl garland, and tiny white lights. And always, always we have at least one real tree in the house. I know the look of artificial trees has progressed exponentially since the 1960’s and they are beautiful. And I do have an artificial tree in in our den, along with a table top artificial tree in our basement. And I know there will come a day when we will have only artificial trees, and that will be fine and we will have wonderful Christmases with them. But not yet.
My grandson and I are having a discussion lately about the ecological impact of having a real tree. His position is that trees should not be cut down because of their benefits to the environment. As a staunch supporter of our local arboretum, his is a position I generally agree with. My position on Christmas trees, however, is that there is an industry of Christmas tree farms whose purpose is to provide a steady supply of real trees for families to enjoy at Christmas and that cutting down trees for that purpose will not have a negative impact on the environment.
As for my other decorations, I embarked on a lifetime of collecting decorative memorabilia as well. I have periodically over the years purged my supply and replenished as my tastes changed. But there are a number of items and collections that I continue to use year after year and are staples in my decorating scheme.
I started collecting nativity scenes in the 1990’s. I have a Celtic scene from Ireland; I have a Native American nativity scene from New Mexico; one I bought in a jewelry store in my home town. I have a very large one from Mexico. I used to put all of them out each year in various rooms. Now I just choose one to showcase and it varies each year.
I also have a Moravian Star that I have displayed every year for the past twenty or so years. The first Moravian star is known to have originated in the 1830s at the Moravian Boys’ School in Niesvky, Germany, most probably as a geometry lesson or project, I’ve heard. When you look at the complexity of the Star, you will understand that. I hear that the city of Winston Salem, North Carolina, founded by Moravians in 1766 and where a large number of Moravians live, uses the Moravian star as their official Christmas street decoration. In addition, a 31-foot Moravian star, one of the largest in the world, sits atop the North Tower of Wake Forest Baptist Center during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the town in which I was born, and part of the Lehigh Valley, also has a large Moravian population. In fact, Bethlehem was the first well-established Moravian settlement in the Americas, founded in 1741 and Moravian College, my undergraduate alma mater, was founded in 1742.
In the late 1970’s, I first learned of Williamsburg Christmases from a friend who had gone to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Williamsburg was the capital of the Virginia Colony from 1699 to 1780 and played a significant role in the American Revolution. Colonial Williamsburg now serves as a living history museum. Christmas is understated and magical in Williamsburg. My friend’s home was decorated with the very simple white lights in the windows, candles in pewter candlesticks on every table, and the fruit and wreaths and garland made from magnolia wreaths. I fell in love with the look and started to collect Williamsburg-like decorations. Years later when my son was a law student at William and Mary I spent more time learning about Williamsburg and the Illumination that kicks off the season every year.
There are Christmas ornaments and specialties that I have bought during our travels: nativity scenes from various places, carved wooden tree ornaments and a table-top nativity pyramid from Germany, La Befana from Italy. In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to St Nicholas or Santa Claus. A popular belief is that her name derives from the Feast of Epiphany or in Italian La Festa dell’Epifania.
And there is the Victorian Christmas village that my husband meticulously assembles and painstakingly assures that each building in relation to others in the neighborhood make sense. He places the shrubbery, the human figurines, the horses. This is another collection accumulated over many years. About thirty years ago I was besotted with the concept of the Victorian Christmas and Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (a must-watch every year in our house; the Alistair Sim 1951 movie is our standard). Wanting to replicate as much as possible of the Victorian Christmas dinner, I ordered a goose from our butcher for our main course. Per the cooking directions, I dutifully extracted the fat from the bird during the cooking process. Of course, what this does is shrink the dinner centerpiece to almost nothing. Which was actually not a bad thing, in this case, because a goose is dark meat which none of us liked at the time anyway. One of the times I was more caught up in form over substance!
A word about my ornaments: I bought many them myself but many were also given to us over the years by dear friends and acquaintances. As I place each of them on the tree, I always remember with a smile the person who gave it to us. Even if I’ve completely lost touch with that person, for a time they were present in my life. We’re lucky we have those friends with whom we’ve been close for many, many years; others, particularly in work situations, may come and go out of our lives. But each has touched us along the way and left a memory. It’s important to me to remember each one at this time of the year.
In any year, with the decorations, I can go Williamsburg, Nutcracker, Victorian or, like this year, a combination of all of them. However, you’re spending the season, I hope you are all enjoying it. Make every day special and reward yourself in the evening with a glass of wonderful wine or a steaming cup of tea, or your beverage of choice!
Until we meet again……..