The snow came early this November. Perhaps that’s the reason everyone is in high gear for the holidays. If not the snow, then the appearance of pine wreaths, baubles, glitter and garlands edging out all the Hallowe’en décor in the stores was the trigger. Whatever the reason, I felt the urge to write about decorations this week.
Every family has an annual ritual of decorating the tree. At our house, my dad would always bring home two trees and let mom choose the best one. The other was given to a neighbour. Once the tree was placed in the living room, mom would bring out the huge cardboard box that contained the decorations and carefully begin to unwrap each one. Meanwhile, dad would take care of the lights. Do you remember those old strings of bulbs, where if one had burned out, none of the others would light up? All sentimental feelings of peace and goodwill towards men would soon vanish in the search for the defective bulb or bulbs.
Decorating the outside of the house was unknown until the 1980s. Prior to that, and in this part of Northern Ontario, only an occasional wreath graced the front door, although many wreaths were shown on Christmas cards.
My personal favourite decorations were four glass pinecones – one each of pink, blue, yellow and green. The tips were frosted and because they were so fragile, were only hung high on the tree. After the lights were arranged and all the baubles hung, the strips of shiny silver icicles would be carefully placed on each bough. Oh, those icicles! They were made of tiny, thin aluminum strips, and when the tree was taken down, each icicle was removed individually and wrapped at one end on a card – for safe keeping until next year.
Christmas décor was kept and treasured from year to year, and each bauble usually had a story behind it – whether it had been made by a child or received as a gift. Sometimes the story was simply about the long-gone, little store in town where it was purchased. There was no online
marketplace to offer used holiday decorations for quick sale once the holidays were over.
Everyone has favourite decorations and I wondered where these traditions began. It surprised me that for a religious holiday, most traditional expressions of the season first began in pagan times.
The pine cones we all love came about because early pagans believed fairies and elves lived in the cones, so they were brought into the house to keep the creatures warm. This act of kindness was supposed to bring the family good luck for the year.
The “angel hair” covering the outer branches comes from an old Ukrainian folk tale about a woman who was too poor to get decorations for her Christmas tree. On Christmas morning she and her children were delighted to find that a spider had spun a web all over the tree.
Bringing fruits and berries into the home was believed to ensure a ripe harvest the following year.
The evergreen tree itself was used in pagan rituals and magical rites to make sure the home would be protected through the long cold winter and to ensure the return of green vegetation to the dead forest in the spring.
Pagans rang bells to ward off evil spirits and for hundreds of years bells have been rung to announce significant events in the community.
The tradition of having lights in the form of candles began around 600 AD by northern Europeans to celebrate the solstice, hoping to lure the sun back in the new year.
Feathered birds on a tree originated with the pagan custom in which bird feathers were placed over a door in the hope that babies would arrive at that house in the spring.
The Scandinavian tradition of St. Nick leaving gifts in the children’s shoes has evolved into the Christmas stocking of today. I know many parents and grandparents who long for the good old days, when a stocking could actually hold what a child wanted for Christmas!
That’s my view from Over the Hill.