Decorations are more than simple objects
VERMONT — For many Americans, decorations have become popular for just about every holiday there is to celebrate; we love to pull out the Easter baskets, bunnies and eggs in the spring, then pack them away and replace them with flags for the Fourth, then witches and ghosts for Halloween, colorful ears of corn and gourds for Thanksgiving and then, of course come the winter holidays.
Traditions and rituals follow each set of decorations, whether they are family traditions, religious traditions or inspired by another cultural or historical experience. Each time the box comes out and the familiar decorations are exposed, a rush of nostalgic joy follows.
The history of evergreen boughs, branches and full trees can be dated back long before the advent of Christianity when ancient people used the greenery to celebrate the winter solstice and return of longer days. They believed that the dark and cold days of winter signaled the period each year when sun god fell sick and weak. The winter solstice meant that once again the sun god would begin to get well and days would lengthen and temperatures would rise again.
People throughout the northern hemisphere including the Egyptians, Romans, Druids and Vikings all have recorded histories of decorating throughout the winter season with palms, pine, spruce, holly and fir trees, believing it would ward away evil spirits and illness and reminding themselves that the sun would return again soon.
Germans are typically credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition that we know today in the 16th century. Devout Christians there brought trees into their homes to symbolize their everlasting lives with God. As the story goes, a German preacher named Martin Luther was walking through the forest one winter’s eve and looked up to see a dazzling array of stars shining through the evergreen canopy above him. He was so struck with the beauty and immediately was reminded of Jesus and his love that shone brightest around Christmastime. He went home and was determined to recreate the scene for his family. He brought in a tree to his home and fastened candles on the boughs.
From that time, decorations have shifted from candles and edible gifts such as apples, gingerbread and berries to colored paper, ribbon, golf foil and handmade wooden figures.
As the popularity of the Christmas tree grew more and more widespread, so did the types and traditions of ornaments that decorated the trees. In Europe many people still decorate their trees with candles, while in America and many other places in the world electrical strands of lights have provided a safer alternative.
For countries in the southern hemisphere or closer to the equator, traditions were adapted to the warmer weather and longer days; outdoor celebrations including parades, fireworks, dances and garden decorations are popular. Different parts of the Christian story are adopted in different parts of the world and thus the traditions, rituals and decorations vary widely.
The adoption of the Christmas tree and many of the more joyful customs came very late in America. Conservative Puritans in the 17th century were offended by these frivolous acts that they believed mocked a sacred event. William Bradford and Oliver Cromwell both wrote publically in disdain of not just Christmas trees, but caroling, gift-giving or any other “heathen traditions.” In 1659 the state of Massachusetts passed a law that made it a penal offense to conduct any ritual activity on December 25, other than going to church.
This strict and solemn observance of Christmas lasted in the United States until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants finally undermined the Puritan notions.
In the mid-1800s, Christmas trees were made even more popular in Europe following a popularized drawing of the British Queen Victoria and Prince Albert standing with their children around a decorated tree around the holidays.
Handmade glass baubles from Lauscha in Germany were among the most coveted popular ornaments through the 1800s and a large export industry was established to carry these decorations around Europe and America. Importers like F.W. Woolworth who worked to bring these Lauschan baubles and other European ornaments to American masses made a fortune.
In Europe, decorated trees have remained at a fairly modest size, reaching about four feet tall. But almost as soon as they became popularized, Americans preferred large and showy trees that reached from the floor to the ceiling, covered with lights and decoration.
Of course, decorations have since become widely varied, too. Many families have adopted the holiday traditions surrounding the decorated tree, gifts and gathering regardless of whether or not they share a strong affiliation with the Christian faith and historical meanings behind the holiday. For these families, decorations may include mementos from travels, family photos, or wintery icons like snowmen, ice skates, snowflakes and mittens. For Christian families decorations might also remind them of the Biblical story of Christ’s birth: characters from the nativity, angels, crosses and stars.
But regardless of the formality or the history behind them, almost all of these holiday traditions share something very profound: they bring a ceremony and a ritual with them every year. These rituals not only mark the passage of time and help contextualize life with familiar actions that can be relied on, but they link us to an inherent human need to share meaningful traditions with others.
Of course, the same is true for rituals and adornments in all religious traditions; the lighting of the Menorah for Hanukkah, the colorful display of Tikka powder for Holi, the feasting at the end of Ramadan, or the mantras recited at Buddhist prayer wheels are each examples of rituals that provide context and meaning within a larger community.
With religious and non-religious rituals providing reason, connection and symbolism for the season, it’s no wonder that we have such fondness for this season and look forward to it each year. We plot on our calendars when we’ll hang the lights, collect the tree, gather the gifts, make the cookies, sing the favorite songs and gather with family and friends to share it all. We give ourselves permission to revel in memories and use each saved ornament as an excuse to recount an old story, remember an ancestor, or reapply a lesson previously learned.
Relishing in these traditions and forming new ones keeps the fabric of community tight. Granting meaning to actions and icons and pausing to consider the context brings a sense of deeper belonging and connection. Seeking togetherness and making time for reunion will make this season (or any season) bright.